Union-building in the midst of a murder mystery: A great summer read “One Foot in the Grave”
A book review by Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Timothy Sheard has done it again. His new mystery novel, One Foot in the Grave (published by Hardball Press, which also publishes my own, The Man Who Fell From the SkyT), is not only a great murder mystery but it weaves in an entire plot concerning the challenges and possibilities of workers engaged in building a labor union.
One Foot in the Grave is a continuation of a series that centers on a hospital janitor named Lenny Moss who happens to be a shop steward for his union in the hospital. As shop steward he represents the workers in various challenges that they face on the job, and frequently, off the job. But what makes Moss so unusual is that he also finds himself acting as a sort of quasi-detective, pursuing criminals of various stripes. In an earlier story Moss uncovers the plot of a deranged physician who is intent on sterilizing women he perceives to be unsuitable to raise children. In One Foot in the Grave Moss finds himself seeking out a disturbed individual intent on revenge.
Yet in telling you this, you—the reader—miss an extraordinary component of this novel. Sheard makes a point of describing the working and home lives of average working people, in this case, hospital workers. In One Foot in the Grave Sheard focuses on the challenges that are faced by hospital nurses. The context, in this story, is the outbreak of a form of the Zita virus, an illness spread by mosquitoes. The outbreak creates fear in the city (Philadelphia) and among the hospital workers treating those struck by the virus. In this situation, a heartless hospital management largely ignores the concerns of the nurses and several of them decide that the time has come to unionize.
The hospital, in Sheard’s book, has a union representing the so-called non-professional staff, i.e., those who are not doctors or nurses. This is not unusual. Sheard’s description of the frequent tensions between the nurses and non-nursing staff was very real and leaves the reader unsure whether the nurses will, ultimately, join Moss’s union; go off and form a separate union; or decide to not organize anything. Obviously I am not going to tell you the answer.
The mystery within this mystery novel is not just about the disturbed individual, but it also revolves around the efforts by the hospital management to undermine the efforts of the workers to organize a union. The steps that are described by Sheard are not fictional, but are very real moves made by anti-worker management teams around the country to derail efforts by workers to join or form labor unions and to engage in collective bargaining.
I love a good mystery, and One Foot in the Grave is certainly that. But I also love when an author integrates broader, real-world issues into their story so that the reader gets a picture of the world in which we live.
You won’t regret reading One Foot in the Grave.