Tammy Cohen: Office Noir and Setting My Thriller – When She Was Bad – in a Toxic Workplace

Tammy Cohen: Office Noir and Setting My Thriller – When She Was Bad – in a Toxic Workplace

I once worked in the features department of a magazine office headed up by a boss who’d graduated from the same Management School as Rachel Masters, my fictional boss from hell in When She Was Bad. We were yelled at in front of the whole open plan office, pitted against each other to try to foster a competitive edge and even, on occasion, marched back after a visit to the kitchen or the toilets if it was felt we’d taken too long as the boss was paranoid we might be bitching about her (to be fair, we usually were).

It was the most miserable working experience of my life. When you’re treated like a little kid you end up acting like one. You no longer trust your own judgement. You can’t make decisions for fear of getting something wrong. When you’re the one getting it in the neck you burn with humiliation and when it’s someone else’s turn you’re just so glad it’s not you, you stand by mutely and let it happen. At night I’d lie in bed agonising over things that had happened that day and dreading the next one. I drank a LOT of wine. When I eventually left that job, I felt like I’d reverse-aged by ten years, a bit like Benjamin Button. And my partner and kids felt like they’d got the real me back, not the brittle shell of a person I’d become.

Sadly most of us probably have an experience like that lurking somewhere in our employment history. Which makes it even stranger that the workplace is so rarely used as a setting in fiction, apart from as an occasional change of scene, or to demonstrate a character’s three dimensionality (my spell-check isn’t telling me that word doesn’t exist, so I’m hoping for the best) by showing how he or she behaves at work as opposed to at home.

The workplace setting is particularly well-suited to psychological thrillers, which tend to focus on the gap between the self you present to the world and the self you really are underneath. Nowhere is that gap more evident than at work. Though you might spend more time with your co-workers than you do with your nearest and dearest, how well do you really know them? Do you know what their childhoods were like? Have you met their friends? What’s the worst thing that ever happened to them? What secrets are they keeping?

Most of us wear masks at work (not literally; well not usually). We try to keep some aspects of ourselves hidden – we don’t generally cry in front of our colleagues, or make outrageous jokes, or indulge in the lazy, silly or sentimental behaviour we might favour at home. Whatever the office politics, we all present façades that we hope make us appear more professional and try to hide any resentment that might have been building up under the surface.

But what happens when something shatters that façade?

When She Was Bad focuses on a small team in a recruitment company who have been working together reasonably harmoniously for a number of years under an easy-going if ineffectual manager. When a new boss, Rachel Masters, is brought in to improve profitability and shake the department up, the fragile relationships between the staff members rapidly unravel. Rachel operates by setting workers against each other which encourages competition and, inevitably, back-stabbing. Alliances crumble as colleagues turn on each other and, in the case of one staff member, long-repressed, traumatic memories are triggered, with disastrous consequences.

The last few years have seen an explosion in the number of psychological thrillers focusing on the home and the family, while the workplace, with all its seething ambition and rivalry, its pettiness and betrayal, has been largely overlooked. However, the signs are that this is changing. I know of at least one more work-based thriller coming out in the next few months, and another that is underway. We’ve even coined a term for this new genre. Office Noir. You heard it here first.

Just be aware, you might never look at your colleagues in quite the same way again. And you will definitely find yourself sniffing the sugar in the staff kitchen. Just in case.