Monday, February 22, 2010

Murder, Ltd.

Business and the corporate world are integral parts of life for many of us. We all have to earn a living, and many of us do that by working for a company or owning one ourselves. Whether it’s a large corporation, a small firm, or a one-person company, making ends meet is a critical concern. In fact, lots of people spend more time at the office than they do at home. Most of us are able to put our working lives into perspective. For some people, though, the drive to “get ahead,” and the greed that can accompany “the corporate life” are irresistible impulses that can, in crime fiction, lead to murder. The business world can be a compelling setting for a mystery novel, because the elements that make for believable motives (e.g. greed, rivalry, fear) are a part of life in many businesses.

Agatha Christie didn’t focus a great deal of attention on murder that takes place in the business world. Still, several of her stories include characters who have business-related motives for murder. For instance, in Death on the Nile, we meet beautiful, wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who’s taking a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. On the second night of the cruise, she’s shot. Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, is asked to investigate the murder. One of the things he finds is that Linnet Doyle was a skilled businesswoman who would have noticed quickly any irregularity in her finances. That’s exactly what worries her American trustee, Andrew Pennington. Pennington’s managed Linnet’s fortune since her father died, and he had to relinquish control of her finances at the time of her marriage. That was the last thing Pennington wanted, as he’d used some of her fortune to cover some of his own losses. Those sharp business practices give Pennington a strong motive for murder. Of course, he’s not the only one with a motive…

Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise also focuses on some shady business dealings. This time, the murder takes place at an office. Victor Dean is a copyrighter who works for Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., a well-known and ultra-respectable advertising firm. When Dean dies from a fall down the office’s spiral staircase, the management of the firm wants to do everything possible to avoid a scandal and risk the firm’s reputation. The firm’s management team is especially concerned because Dean’s sister had found a half-finished note that hints of some underhanded dealings at the company. So they hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover and investigate. Using an assumed name, Wimsey takes Dean’s job and learns copyrighting. He also finds out the secret that Dean had discovered: a major drugs ring is using the firm’s advertisements to arrange meetings between members of the drugs gang and their dealer customers. As it turns out, someone in the firm was paid by the drugs gang to help them set up meetings, and Dean found out. Now, Wimsey has to find out who the “go-between” is before he becomes a target himself.

There’s an interesting example of murder in the world of business in Emma Lathen’s Murder to Go. Chicken Tonight, a fast-food company that franchises its restaurants, has been doing well and has just launched a new recipe – Chicken Mexicali. The franchisees are happy with the results at first, and Chicken Tonight seems poised for a great deal of success. In fact, there’s even a plan for a merger between Chicken Tonight and another company, Southeastern Insurance. Then, several Chicken Tonight customers are taken to the hospital with poisoning. In fact, one customer actually dies. Then, Clyde Sweeney, a disgruntled former delivery driver, disappears after the poisonings are traced to him. Everyone thinks it’s a case of one angry former employee taking revenge on his employer - untill Clyde Sweeney is found, strangled. It’s clear now that this is much more. In the end, it turns out that the poisonings and Sweeney’s murder are motivated, not by spite, but by greed and fear.

Greed and fear are also behind several deaths in Robin Cook’s Contagion, which features his sleuths, medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery. Stapleton becomes curious when a series of patients at Manhattan General Hospital die of what seems to be a virulent strain of influenza. When Stapleton isolates the problem, he realizes that these deaths aren’t from a typical virus. These deaths have been caused deliberately. Stapleton and Montgomery connect the deaths to a publicity battle being waged between two health care giants: AmeriCare (with which Manhattan General is affiliated) and National Health. It’s soon clear that these deaths are casualties of a business war. Now, Stapleton has to find out who’s actually caused the disease, and is spreading it, before more people die.

It’s a business deal gone terribly bad that’s responsible for several deaths in Rita Mae Brown’s Wish You Were Here, the first of her Mrs. Murphy series. Kelly Craycroft, a successful paving contractor, and Maude Bly Modena, who owns a successful packing and shipping business, are both killed with the space of a few days. Before each death, the victim had received a postcard with a picture of a tombstone and the note, “Wish you were here.” The postcards capture the attention of postmistress Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, and her natural curiosity makes the mystery irresistible. In the end, Harry finds out about a secret (and not-so-savory) business relationship among the victims and the murderer. The souring of that relationship was what led to the victims’ deaths.

Corporate greed plays an important role in Debra Purdy Kong’s Fatal Encryption. McKinley’s Department Store is being stalked by a computer prankster. The store’s management hires out-of-work computer analyst Alex Bellamy to find out who the prankster is and stop the hacking. Bellamy accepts the job, but soon finds out that he got more than he bargained for. His opponent has gotten into the store’s data base and encrypted some files. Alex is curious about what the hacker is looking for, but when he tries to find out, things turn ugly. The hacker threatens to encrypt all of the company data and destroy it unless he is paid a ransom of one million dollars. Now, Alex has to find the hacker in order to save the company – and himself. He’s not sure who his enemy is, but one of the people he suspects is the brother of a recent murder victim, and Alex suspects that the computer hijacking and the murder might be related. As it turns out, he’s right; corporate greed and fear have motivated both.

Joseph Finder’s Killer Instinct tells the story of what can happen when corporate ambition goes too far. Jason Steadman is a Boston-based sales executive for an electronics giant. He’s dong well at his company, but much to the chagrin of his wife, Kate, he doesn’t have what might be called the “killer instinct” that would take him to the top of the company’s ladder. Then, one day, quite literally by accident, he meets Kurt Semko. Semko is a former Special Forces officer and veteran of the war in Iraq. He’s also a former major-league baseball player. Steadman thinks that Semko might be a valuable recruit for the company’s softball team, so he arranges for Semko to get a job in Corporate Security. Before long, Steadman seems to benefiting from all sorts of good things that are happening to him, and bad things that are happening to his rivals. Soon, Steadman realizes that Semko’s been responsible for paving his way to his goals. He tries to stop Semko, but too late, he realizes that he’s up against a much more dangerous enemy than he could have imagined.

Novels that center around corporate greed, high finance and company politics can be engrossing. The board room can be a very conducive setting for a crime novel, since so many of the motives behind many crimes are there. But they’re not for everyone. Not everyone likes the intricacies of “boardroom politics.” Do you? Which are your favorite “corporate” murder mysteries?

10 comments:

  1. I don't really know many corporate murder mysteries... I know Agatha Christie had suspects with financial gains but you do mention good examples here.

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  2. Ann - You put that well. Agatha Christie did have suspects with financial motives, and in some of her mysteries, there are mentions of suspects' companies being in financial troubule, etc.. As a rule, though, the corporate setting wasn't her setting. So you're in good company in not knowing a lot of corporate murder mysteries : ).

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  3. I don't know that I know of any corporate murder mysteries either. But, I am a fan of Rita Mae Brown's series. The corporate world has so many twists and turns in it that it makes for excellent mystery material.

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  4. Mason - I like Rita Mae Brown's Mrs. Murphy series quite a lot, too. You're right, too, about the corporate world. It's a terrific context for a murder mystery because of the twists, turns and "corporate games."

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  5. I spent many years having (what I refer to as "just a job") jobs in the corporate world, I wholeheartedly agree that it's a perfect premise for a murder mystery! LOL! Oh, the politics and gossipy nature of such environments!

    Something I most definitely do NOT miss!

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  6. CCP - I had to laugh out loud when I read your comment! I, too, was in the business world for several years. There is nothing like "office politics" and the gossip of business environments to make for a very believable murder mystery. I'm with you, too, about *not* missing those days : ).

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  7. People you work with become your 'work family' - there's a parental figure, children, and odd aunts and uncles or cousins (odd taking any meaning of the word). Loyalties grow. Rivalries flourish. Grudges take seed. Triumphs explode and disasters implode. What better setting for a murder mystery?

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  8. Elspeth - I hadn't thought of that, but you're absolutely right! When one spends as much time at work as most of us do, those people do become family. It's no wonder, then, that all of the "makings" for a murder can crop up. You always give me such interesting things to think about : )

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  9. I enjoyed that Joseph Finder thriller, Margot, but not as much as his first novel. That was really good as a savage indictment of "cubicle culture". (Dilbert noir?) John Grisham comes close to this in some of his anti-corporate legal thrillers also. Grisham is always on the side of the little guy.

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  10. Maxine - You are so right about Grisham! One sees that in Street Lawyer and A Time to Kill, among others. I'm glad you mentioned those novels. As far as Finder goes, do you mean Company Man? If so, I confess that I haven't read that one, although from your description, it sounds exactly the sort of thing I mean. I'm giong to have to track that one down, because there really is something about the "cubicle culture" (I love that term!) that can lead to all of the elements of a good, paranoid murder : ). Dilbert noir, indeed : ).

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