“Going Postal: The Particular Pleasures of Workplace Murders” (by Meredith Anthony)

When it comes to different lines of work, Meredith Anthony has known more than most people. She’s a humorist whose work has appeared in MAD Magazine and Hysteria; she’s done stand-up comedy; she was the writer and partner for the Spilled Milk collection of greeting cards; she’s a reviewer of theater and film; she has co-authored and produced a play and an award-winning short film; and she has written several feature-length screenplays. And that is not even to mention her primary career as copywriter for a major New York ad agency. Or her fiction writing, which includes novels and several stories for EQMM. Her most recent novel, Ladykiller (Oceanview 2010), was co-written with her husband, Lawrence Light.—Janet Hutchings

So a guy goes to his office and greets all his variously annoying colleagues. There is the usual variety of flirtations, animosities, eccentricities. He toils at meaningless paperwork all morning, unappreciated, underpaid, unhappy. At lunchtime, it’s his turn to go out to the deli. He takes everyone’s orders. When he comes back with a large, leaking paper bag, he finds the office strangely quiet. A quick inspection reveals that every single person at his workplace has been shot to death.

This, of course, is the beginning of James Grady’s great thriller Six Days of the Condor. I once asked Jim Grady about the enormous success of the book and the subsequent film, Three Days of the Condor, and he laughed and told me that he thought it struck a chord with every working stiff. Everyone at the office is dead. Haven’t we all secretly wished for that to happen?

I have always loved mysteries set in a workplace. I like the insider’s view of a profession I know nothing about, the chance to watch employees work, learn some of their jargon, be privy to the office politics, catch the rhythm of their days. I like to immerse myself in the world of this new profession. And when murder strikes, I like to watch how the workplace does or doesn’t go on in the wake of the shocking event. Do the employees dab their streaming eyes and carry on with working? Does the place shut down while the police investigate? Do colleagues begin to look at one another with distrust and suspicion?

I leave out books set in cop shops, detective agencies, and those about medical examiners, military police, and government spies. Procedurals certainly have their appeal, but I’m talking about books set in a workplace that typically does not deal with violence professionally.

Many professions have their exemplars. Robin Cook and Michael Crichton wrote medical thrillers that invited us into hospitals. More recently, Michael Palmer, Douglas Lyle, and CJ Lyons have mixed medicine and murder. John Grisham, Scott Turow, and others bring us inside the lawyer’s office and the courtroom. Steve Frey and Christopher Reich offer a glimpse into Wall Street. Journalism is the setting explored by Scotland’s Denise Mina and (full disclosure, he’s my husband!) the wonderful Larry Light.

For corporate America, Joseph Finder excels. His Killer Instinct, for instance, is set in a Boston electronics giant where an ambitious, but not very successful, young executive is unwittingly assisted by a security guy he befriends. The security man starts helpfully eliminating anyone who gets in the way of the hero’s upward mobility. The hero is, of course, aghast, but isn’t this every thwarted working person’s wish fulfillment? Don’t we all secretly want that bitch in the corner office to die?

Having worked in advertising for some years, I always wanted to find a mystery set in a big-city ad agency. My experience is that although ad agencies are high-pressure businesses with a typical corporate pyramid structure and a profit and loss statement, in fact they differ significantly from most white-collar office settings. Ad agencies are businesses where a great many of the employees are hired specifically for their imagination and artistic talents. Highly paid and skilled copywriters and art directors are not ordinary office drones. They pride themselves on their quirks and most agencies give them a lot of leeway in work habits, office décor, and dress. Cubicle walls may be covered in bananas, skulls, or fish. Christmas lights, black lights, or no lights are common. Clothes may be chosen to show off piercings and tattoos. Pets, unicycles, and mini-refrigerators full of booze are not uncommon. In fact, it occurs to me that these “creatives,” as they are called, frequently get away with murder. I decided to take that notion a step further. I was delighted to have a chance to explore this setting in a short story, “Murder at an Ad Agency,” which will appear in the March/April 2013 issue of EQMM.

Facing a rack at Barnes and Noble, or listing on Amazon.com, we all have our ways of choosing a new book to read. Some of us choose to read mysteries by subgenre—cozies, police procedurals, amateur sleuths, thrillers, noir. Others choose by setting—big cities, foreign settings, historicals, Westerns. Some look for a certain type of protagonist—strong women, damaged cops, cats. Some readers look only for favorite authors, series, or standalones. Me? I look for a new workplace—Jane Cleland’s antiques business, Hank Phillippi Ryan’s TV station, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Episcopal church, Barry Eisler’s freelance assassin, Christa Faust’s porn star, to name just a few.

One of my all-time favorite office mysteries is a noir thriller by the amazing Duane Swierczynski. Severance Package is the perfect update on James Grady’s Condor classic. Here’s the set-up. The boss has asked seven employees to come in to work at 9 a.m. on a Saturday for a special meeting. Irritable and suspicious, they all comply. He locks them in and announces that he’s going to have to kill them all. Seriously? On a Saturday at 9 a.m.? Now, if that isn’t the beginning of a really bad day at the office, I don’t know what is.

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17 Responses to “Going Postal: The Particular Pleasures of Workplace Murders” (by Meredith Anthony)

  1. Jon L. Breen says:

    I share your enthusiasm for workplace whodunits. One of the greatest of them, Dorothy L. Sayers’s MURDER MUST ADVERTISE, has that ad agency background. A more recent example with similar appeal is Dick Lochte’s CROAKED!, set in the offices of a PLAYBOYish men’s magazine.

  2. Thanks, Jon. I knew the Sayers’ one, of course. But haven’t read Croaked. Looking forward!

    Best, Meredith

  3. Oh, what a terrific post! Hilarious and wonderful..and hey, thanks for the nice mention. (Aw. )

    I agree about Six Days of the Condor (don’t you love it that Hollywood cut it to 3?)

    I think one of the neat parts about workplace whodunits is the jargon–like you, Meredith, so easily and naturally call them “creatives” –but I’ve never heard that! So it seems cool and insidery. And that makes the story live.

  4. hankpryan says:

    (You did Spilled Milk? Those are GREAT!)

  5. Bob de Luna says:

    What a terrific blog posting indeed, and I agree that the workplace setting is especially rich! I imagine that the play Meredith is credited with is probably set in a workplace, and I’d just LOVE to see it produced in New York. (Full disclosure: I’m Meredith’s co-playwright.)

  6. Janine says:

    Meredith,

    Nice work! I love that you mention “bananas” as cubicle decor. It’s funny because it’s true!

  7. janecleland says:

    It took me awhile to comment because I was laughing so hard. Meredith, you are such a great writer.

  8. Elaine Ash says:

    Cool post from an unusual POV. How about the workplace for prostitutes, most commonly hotel rooms, correct? Albert Tucher’s series about Diana Andrews comes to mind.

  9. Terrific post. By the way, Law and Order also had a whole office staff wiped out in one of its TV episodes. Their stories usually reflect news events, so that’s even more evidence that office workers are secretly thinking of bumping off their colleagues. I for one, had a similar urge to kill the tyrannical boss in my first book, Animal Instinct, an animal rights thriller. Alas, I held back. Well, my next two mysteries begin in a newsroom, complete with jargon and total stress, so hopefully that will work.

  10. Renée (can't say what my last name is or he'll kill me) says:

    Hmmm…There’s always the home office. Nah! Too obvious.

  11. Debby Baldwin says:

    Gee, and I thought when I nagged you to set your next thriller in a cubicle-filled killing field I’d come up with some new and original idea….. Great post!

  12. Paula Lanier says:

    I’m looking forward to reading your story, Meredith. Thankfully, I’m happy at the agency I’m at for the most part. LOL

  13. I’m so looking forward to reading your story, Meredith, especially since I work in an ad agency. Luckily, I’m happy where I am for the most part. But I’ll keep my guard up if they ask me to come in on a Saturday. LOL

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