The birth of office noir
You see the people you work with every day. But what can’t you see? This is a question that psychological thriller writer Tammy Cohen explores in her gripping new novel When She Was Bad. We asked Tammy to tell us about the shift in setting from the domestic sphere of her previous novels to the workplace.
Over to Tammy:
“Have I reached my peak in the domestic thriller area? That’s what I found myself asking when I sat down to write Book Seven. (Note the ‘I’, not ‘we’, because despite the direst predictions of the doom-mongers, domestic noir as a genre is still alive and very much kicking).
No, the question was very much a personal one. After four domestic noir thrillers in a row I was feeling burned out. Could I face writing another scene where a couple shoot suspicious glances at one another across the breakfast table, or where children are keeping secrets from parents, and parents from each other and neighbours would never guess what’s really going on behind the neat, suburban front door?
The answer was no.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love reading about the darker side of family life – I just wanted a break from writing about it. Once I’d realised that, I started thinking about other settings for a psychological thriller, and the obvious one was the workplace. Did you know the average Brit spends over 99,000 hours of their life at work? That’s very nearly eleven and a half years. And three quarters of full-time workers spend more time with their co-workers than their own families. Yet the workplace rarely features in novels as anything other than an occasional backdrop to present a character in a fresh light.
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that the workplace was the perfect setting for a psychological thriller. A group of disparate characters who know very little about each other, thrown together for long periods of time with all the petty resentments that office politics engenders over the years. What happens if a grenade is tossed into their midst? How quickly would professional relationships unravel? The thing about the workplace is that, unlike the domestic setting, none of us really know who our colleagues are beyond the front they choose to present. We don’t know what their childhoods were like, who their friends are, how they behave with their families. We don’t know their deepest secrets.
At the start of When She Was Bad the staff working in a recruitment office are left reeling when their easy-going but ineffectual manager is replaced by Rachel Masters, a boss from hell, brought in specifically to shake things up. Rachel operates by setting one staff member against another, encouraging competition and back-stabbing. Alliances crumble as colleagues turn on each other. In the case of one staff-member, traumatic, long-repressed memories start coming to the surface with disastrous consequences.
I once worked in an office with a similar boss, and can still remember the dread of walking through the office door in the mornings, and the way I trailed my work-misery home with me to my family at night, so there was never any let-up. The work setting seems to have struck a chord with readers too. Since When She Was Bad came out I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve contacted me to tell me about their own nightmarish workplace experiences.
The workplace is astonishingly fertile ground for crime fiction. Office noir has landed.”