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Workplace Mysteries and Thrillers

What happens when a day at the office goes wrong? In today’s episode, Brook and Sarah discuss workplace mysteries and thrillers.


“The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather” (1845) Edgar Allan Poe

Murder Must Advertise (1933) Dorothy L. Sayers

Murder Must Advertise (1979) BBC Radio Adaptation by Alistair Beaton

Cat Among the Pigeons (1959) Agatha Christie

The Firm (1991) John Grisham

The Showrunner (2018) Kim Moritsugu

The Maid (2022) Nita Prose

The Machinist (2004)

The Circle (2014) Dave Eggars

The Every (2021) Dave Eggars

The Coworker (2023) Freida McFadden

The Net (1995)

One by One (2020) Ruth Ware

Dublin Murder Squad series (2007-2016) Tana French

The Other Black Girl (2021) Zakia Delila Harris

The Other Black Girl (2023) Apple TV

Red Collar Podcast (2020-2021) Catherine Townsend

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Music: Signs To Nowhere by Shane Ivers – www.silvermansound.com


This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook. And we both love mystery.
SarahHi, Brook.
BrookHi, Sarah. I’m really ready for today’s topic.
SarahWell that’s good to hear. Today we are going to be talking about workplace thrillers, which you know sometimes people are not that excited to get up and go to work. I will start us off with just a really brief introduction. Work is a near universal, unavoidable experience. And even if you’ve only spent a short time working you’ve probably spent at least a moment or two being frustrated, whether it’s by a client, a colleague stealing your lunch from the office kitchen, or what feels like a pointless task. Luckily, there are workplace thrillers that we can turn to rather than acting on any of those frustrations. And the workplaces that authors invite us into are often so toxic, if not outright deadly, that our workplace frustration seems pretty minor in comparison. Today we will talk about mysteries where the workplace plays a starring role. Although it’s not generally billed as a workplace thriller, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Feather” describes a terrifying work environment that has serious consequences for the employees. A few early mysteries featuring murders at a workplace are Dorothy L. Sayers Murder Must Advertise, which was published in 1933 and Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, which was published in 1959. There may be some other examples, but even looking at other works by Christie and Sayers, most of their books are in more social rather than in professional settings. The first workplace thriller that I read. Is The Firm which was written by John Grisham and published in 1991. In it the main character starts working at a law firm that hides some very dark secrets. Since then, I’ve read a few others but to be honest, I struggled to find many examples of workplace thrillers and mysteries for today’s episode, other than the handful of books that I’ve read. I’m sure there’s others out there, but there didn’t seem to be as many as some of the other subgenres that we’ve discussed. And maybe, Brook, that’s where we can start. Do you think that despite the fact that nearly everyone works in some capacity at some point in their lives, audiences don’t really want to read about work?
BrookYeah, that could be the case. Thanks for the summary, Sarah that was great. And like you say, you know a lot of times we have the Sunday blues because we don’t want to get up and go to work. So maybe that is part of why, because I agree there aren’t as many examples. The ones that we have are often very very good and draw on ah the like same psychology I think as domestic thrillers for exactly the reasons you say we’ve all been there. But I see what you’re saying that there aren’t haven’t been as many written.
SarahAnd I mean I I agree with you, Brook I would kind of categorize them along with domestic thrillers but rather than a blood family, it’s your work family. And there can be some weird dynamics because like family you’re spending time with people who you might not ordinarily choose to associate with, but unlike family, you have to spend time with them if you want to get paid. So, there’s some obvious tension that can be built into a workplace thriller and I would agree with you. The ones that I’ve read, I’ve thought were very very good. But I was surprised that there just didn’t seem to be a whole bunch of others out there.
BrookYeah, it feels like it’s a goldmine of opportunity because ah, you do have that closeness just like a family. You know as they say we spend more time with the people that we work with than our actual biological families and so you’re going to have those layers of secrets. You’re going to have the conflicts that you have anytime you put a group of people together. And I loved in your summary that you’re like no matter how much you love your job, you have felt some level of frustration at work. We all have. And um I think we’ve all experienced some kind of you know strife or even, you know, trauma at some point. I mean hopefully not to the level of harassment or racism like we see in these workplace thrillers. But you know certainly you’ve gotten frustrated at some sort of favoritism that happens in your workplace or the grouchy boss. Or there’s that coworker that no matter how hard you try the two of you just are like oil and water and you don’t like them, and they probably don’t like you, and we’ve all had those situations. And so I think that it makes this subcategory so accessible in the same way that domestic thrillers are because I can’t imagine what it’s like being a fighter pilot. But I definitely know what it’s like to be an office worker.
SarahYeah that’s ah, that’s a great point and I will say they kind of the workplace thrillers that I’ve read cover a whole variety of workplaces like they’re not just all offices. Or different types of work environments. So I read um a book called The Showrunner by Kim Moritsugu which is a bit of a slow burn. But it’s two colleagues who have started a business together but end up despising each other and going to great lengths to end their working relationship. And you know it it towards the end, it’s kind of like wow well that’s, you know, one way to do it. But you know The Firm is in a law environment. And there’s you know there others Dorothy L. Sayers book is in an advertising agency. The Christie book that I mentioned, Cat Among the Pigeons, is at prestigious girls’ school. So, you know there’s a whole variety of others. I think a couple of years ago a book I don’t know if I would I would say it was definitely a workplace mystery called The Maid, where you know it takes place in a in a high-end hotel. And you know you kind of get a sense of what someone who’s working as a cleaner in one of those hotels what her kind of daily tasks are and then she gets caught up in this investigation when a guest dies there.
BrookI like that too. I like the different glimpses that you get into different industries or different kinds of organizations. You see maybe the side of it that you didn’t know existed, some of the politics that are within that ah type of work. And there can also be blue-collar examples. You know a film that came to my mind this week was The Machinist, which is um like a 2004 film starring Christian Bale. And this the second time I’ve mentioned a Christian Bale movie in about three episodes, so, I’m revealing a favorite. But you know this thriller psychological workplace thriller is ah set in. Obviously he’s a machinist, so more of a factory very gritty blue collar scenario. But we have the same you know conflicts with the co-workers this big question of what’s going on. This story in particular, if you haven’t seen it, is actually told in reverse you figure out later on and the clues drop in very um, very mysteriously. But ah. It’s a great example of a workplace thriller that we get um from you know that blue collar end of things.
SarahThat’s great. I actually haven’t um I don’t think I’ve seen that um I don’t think I’m as big of a Christian Bale fan as you are.
BrookYou also mentioned the Dorothy L. Sayers Murder Must Advertise, which is one of my reads from this week. Or rather I should say listens. I listened to a radio adaptation that was done in the late 70s and it was simply delightful. It was so great. As you say Dorothy L. Sayers sets this in Pym’s publicity and I love the fact that Dorothy L Sayers was also an advertising copywriter so she has a very knowledgeable place to write the story from and she could make it just a lot of fun. Her mysteries are infused with a lot of humor whether it’s humor in the scenarios or the actual characters are kind of cards and say funny things. So I just always really enjoy her mysteries. This one was the same way and it was sort of poking fun at the idea of a mystery happening in a office setting. You know at one point there’s a corpse on the conference table and you know you just had to kind of get a chuckle from that. But it was a great early example of a workplace thriller and um I thought it was really well done.
SarahI’ve read that as well and I actually read something about that. It’s one of her least favorite books that she wrote.
BrookI saw an interview from her around that time and that she was kind of frustrated during the writing of it because it wasn’t what she wanted to be working on at the time or something along those lines. So, yeah, I found that interesting as well because I really enjoyed it. And I enjoyed the little way she infused, you know, there’s even some jingles in it that were apparently spinoffs of jingles that she had written for advertising campaigns.
SarahAnother kind of office based thriller that I read, and this was a while ago, is The Circle by Dave Eggers. And so this is a social media company and the main character becomes very sucked into kind of. the corporate culture of this organization and it’s pretty dark. What I didn’t realize is there was actually a sequel that was published in 2021 titled The Every. So I think I might check that out and kind of see. I might have to go back and read The Circle because I read it probably nine or ten years ago. I think it came out in 2013. So I might have to reread that and then read The Every and see what’s changed I think. You know, certainly a lot has changed in terms of how we use social media in the last decade and so that may be something that that comes through in this in this sequel.
BrookYeah, how interesting the world has changed dramatically in that category. Well overall. But in that that category especially in 10 years so ah, kind of a challenge to take on a new or a sequel I should say in that ah social media topic. Another book that I read to prepare for today was The Coworker this is the brand new Freida McFadden book it came out in August 2023. And although I don’t know that it was my one of my favorite reads from lately, I love the tagline because I think that it encapsulates this subgenre so well. The tagline is “You see her every day, but do you really know her?” And you know that’s the crux of it right.
SarahOh yeah, yeah yeah, you know I was I just kind of reflecting on my own work experience and and how and maybe this is just because we’re no longer going into the office. We’re almost exclusively working from home. But, I do feel like I’m missing out on that knowing my colleagues in a different way because you know we have meetings and we talk and we we talk every day but we don’t get a lot of that, you know, little snippets of of people’s lives that you might get if you bump into them in the in when you’re getting a coffee from the lunchroom or whatever.
BrookYeah, the human the human part of work because it does fulfill a big part of our lives. I mean as I said at the beginning we spend generally more time with those people than our own you know, family. And I know for myself I know for myself, my coworkers fulfilled a lot of my social ah life especially as you know a young married person. My husband and I were both very busy in our jobs and ah that was ah a really big part of my life. Many of my friends came from that circle. So I Imagine these days with so many people working remotely that has really changed the landscape of the workplace. But you’re less likely to get involved in a murder mystery if you’re only visiting onscreen.
SarahExactly. So this just reminds me, Brook, of a movie by Sandra Bullock I think from the 1990s and I had to look it up called The Net. And this is where she’s a remote worker well before this was a common thing. But she gets wrapped up into something involving her co-workers, if I remember that that film correctly, it’s been several years since I’ve seen it.
BrookRight. Because she has information to so much data and she somehow learns it. So I guess my theory should stand corrected in our world of being, you know, so digitally connected you really could learn something that starts a whole workplace thriller remotely.
SarahYeah, and it would be interesting to see when now where working remotely is so prevalent what might that look like.
BrookI see a large opportunity for someone to take this topic and write a workplace thriller about a group of remote workers and speaking of taking the workers outside of the workplace I think that Ruth Ware does this really nicely. In her novel One by One because this is a corporate retreat. So eight coworkers are, their company is leveling up. They’re about to go public and so they want to kind of celebrate and mastermind together and they’re going off to this winter ski chalet and it’s supposed to be this posh vacation setting. But somebody’s there that they can’t trust and it’s it’s a great workplace thriller, but offsite.
SarahOh I I like that. So I I haven’t read that but I think it um, sounds like it really plays on the theme of feeling trapped if they’re you know in a in a remote location. And I think as a worker you can often feel trapped because you know you’ve got to do this job so that you can pay the rent, or pay your mortgage, or you know eat. You may not be in the job that you want to do. You may not be working with people that you really want to be working with, and so that feeling of being trapped. Even if you’re not actually trapped in a snowbound resort. Um, yeah, it sounds like she’s she’s playing with that theme.
BrookYeah that’s a great metaphor for that and I also um, remember feeling a very a familiar feeling of you know what it’s like when these are your coworkers that you’re used to being in your office space setting or you know whatever industry, you’re in. But then if you like had ah have a barbecue at one of their houses. For instance, it just feels weird to be outside of that appropriate setting with this group of people and no one really knows how to act or interact. I remember feeling that when I was reading the book like it’s awkward because now you’re you know on vacation sort of with these people and and it was it was uncomfortable right from the start. So it’s a great one.
SarahWell and and that sounds like there’s some um, good opportunities to explore as well because I’ve been on work trips like where it was a whole company retreat and yeah it can be particularly if you’re not the most outgoing person, that can be a pretty uncomfortable situation. And I’m reminded of I went to ah to a spa and there were a bunch of colleagues that were there not my colleagues but like this work group that had gone together to this spa and I thought I’m not sure that that’s the environment that I want to be with my colleagues and I thought it was a really interesting choice but again a pretty good setup for um, for a thriller for a workplace mystery.
BrookA great setup. Absolutely.
SarahAnd so, Brook do you think that there’s a type of workplace that lends itself really well to this kind of book?
BrookI definitely think the leaning towards the legal. You know what John Grisham does for instance works really well because it just fits in nicely with a mystery. And I was also reminded this week of ah the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French. And so this is putting the workplace as the police precinct. So maybe think of it a little bit like watching Law and Order so you’re really inside the workplace of the the cops and the attorneys that are investigating the case. Um, so more than a police procedural I do feel like that they are more um, interpersonal. So like those thrillers and something she does that is just really clever is that these are a series of standalones they’re six I think they so came out over a span of about ten years but each one of them is told from a different point of view character. So a different homicide investigator or a police officer. But, of course, they all work in the same ah precinct. And so they have there’s crossovers and you start to learn you know what’s going on in this person’s head about that person. And as you read each one it just like fills in the world and they’re just they’re really fascinating. There’s some love affairs that come and go and then these people still have to work together and um so I think that is another oddly great place for a workplace thriller is. Actually the police precinct itself.
SarahAh, so that sounds like a ah great series I haven’t I haven’t read it. Tana French is another one of those authors that I know I probably should have read something by and I just I I just haven’t so I will correct that. But yeah, I mean I don’t know that every police procedural would fall under that category of being a workplace thriller because sometimes it’s you know there’s just not that interaction as much interaction with the with the colleagues. So it probably depends on the story.
BrookAbsolutely and the author and the way she tells the story. So, Sarah, I really like, as I said earlier, these titles where the author actually has some background in the industry. Dorothy Sayers and the ad agency John Grisham law. So, jumping off from that if you were going to write a workplace thriller, where would you set yours?
SarahOh. I don’t know I have been pretty fortunate in that I have not had terrible work experiences. So, I’m not sure that I would have to really think about how I would base it on um on my own experiences but there are a couple of examples of real-life workplace thrillers. I was reminded of a story that I read where a colleague had been poisoning another colleague’s water bottle because they were frustrated and this you know this is real life right? So I googled you know, “colleague poison water bottle” and a couple of stories came up. One happening in Canada, one happening in the US and I’m sure there’s others. So, that premise of poisoning someone’s water bottle, that may be something that I would use if I was um, writing a workplace thriller.
BrookFascinating. Terrifying and fascinating.
SarahNo kidding. So those people need to have read some of these workplace thrillers rather than acting out their own frustrations.
BrookAwesome! Well if I were forced to use one of my previous work life experiences to write a workplace thriller that means that I would be setting it either in state government, which I think is ripe for the picking, or a Dairy Queen ice cream shop. So, I don’t know how scary that would be but first job to one of my later jobs. Those would be the options.
SarahI’m with you I like the there’s some kind of truth that comes through when an author writes about what they know. And I know we’ve talked about this in the past. There was a book called the Other Black Girl that came out in 2021 by Zakia Delila Harris and ah it’s set in the publishing industry and that was where she had worked before or maybe as she was writing this book. She was you know so she was very familiar with it and um, there’s actually a series that I think it’s on might be on Disney in Canada Disney Plus. Maybe it’s on Hulu in the US, by the same name, The Other Black Girl. I’ve been watching some of it. I haven’t finished ah the whole series. It does seem to diverge a little bit from what I remember from the book but still really good. And yeah some weird things happening in this in this workplace. So, you know we try and figure it out with the character which is always fun.
BrookYes, that one’s on my list because when you ah couple the publishing agency with a mystery then you know I’m in that sounds really good. It’s definitely on my list. And I wanted to share with our listeners a true crime podcast if you’re interested in these workplace thriller stories. Um, it’s called Red Collar. I’ll just read the description so you can get a feel for it. When we think of white-collar criminals. We picture a CEO getting caught up in the latest financial scandal but there’s a subgroup within these seemingly nonviolent offenders who are never discussed in mainstream media. The white-collar criminals who kill. Catherine Townsend is the host of this and she describes these cases. I was thinking about the poison water bottle, Sarah where these are definitely white-collar criminals. You know they’re embezzling money or they’re stealing another ah coworker’s clients or they’re doing these things that are yes illegal but nonviolent. But when pushed to the brink and basically it’s usually because they’re going to be found out and their reputation or their you know their job is going is on the line they turn violent and um so these are true stories ah darker and grimmer than fictional workplace thrillers. So keep that in mind. But fascinating stories and I will say if you’re a fiction author there is a lot of food for thought in these. And definitely will come away with the feeling of truth is stranger than fiction.
SarahThat’s a great recommendation, Brook. Well, Brook thanks for this conversation today talking about workplace thrillers.
BrookYes, thank you, Sarah. It was great and we both put a couple new ideas on our to listen and to read lists and and thank you everyone for listening to Clued in Mystery.
BrookI’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.