CALLUM MCSORLEY: The Front: Work in literature / crime fiction

Written by Callum McSorley

The Front: Work in literature / crime fiction

I like writing about work. Shit work. The kind of work I spent my teens and twenties doing. Scrubbing toilets, scrubbing dishes, scrubbing cars.

The first short story I had published was a semi-autobiographical account of working nightshift on the railways refurbishing footbridges. Eight years later, my debut novel Squeaky Clean is based in the car wash I worked at a decade ago.

Why is it I keep clocking in years after quitting?

In Squeaky Clean, the car wash becomes a front for a criminal gang when employee Davey borrows, and destroys, a customer’s motor – a customer who just so happens to be the Big Man about town. Along with the made-up madness, the story features many accurate details and a few true episodes from my years spent there in real life.

I enjoy writing about the minutiae of work. I like revealing little things people might not know about these seemingly normal, even boring jobs.

(For instance, the plastic cup in the plastic bag for your toothbrush in your hotel room – do you think the person cleaning fifty rooms before 3 o’clock check-in that day took the time to wash their hands or change their gloves before picking up that cup and putting it in its bag? That little detail made it into a short story I wrote while working as a housekeeper.)

I like the odd assortment of people thrown together in the work environment – people who wouldn’t necessarily have ever come to spend time together otherwise. People from different walks who have nothing else in common but the job and the technical jargon that comes with it. It’s rich with possibility for character and dialogue – and I love the patter. My editor said of an early draft of Squeaky Clean, “Is this a crime novel or a novel about guys hanging around a car wash trading banter?” It could have gone either way.

Stephen King advises writers to bring in their own experiences to enrich a story: “Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do.” (On Writing, 2000) And I absolutely agree, I’m one of those people. However, while there’s plenty of fiction about characters with glamorous jobs (famous horror author, for instance.) what I really like – and what I wanted to do with Squeaky Clean – are stories involving characters who do menial work. Work that nobody aspires to but that most of us do.

George Orwell’s descriptions of working in a restaurant kitchen in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) are grotesque and full of loathing – and having worked as a kitchen porter myself for a year before throwing in apron, really chime with me. As does the more contemporary Kitchen Confidential (2000) by Anthony Bourdain. He captures with eye-watering accuracy the highs and lows of kitchen life and – in a work of nonfiction – perfectly illustrates the rich mix of characters and colour I mentioned above. Bourdain also wrote a series of crime thrillers set in kitchens, a perfect backdrop for blood, guts, and misdeeds big and small.

One of my favourite novels, a huge inspiration for me, is Out by Natsuo Kirino (1997 [2004, tran. Stephen Snyder]). Four women from different backgrounds with different problems at home work nights at a boxed lunch factory in Tokyo. When one of them kills her husband in a fit of rage, they band together to help her get rid of the body and cover it up. Soon enough they’re being courted by the Yakuza for the quality of their handiwork.

It’s grisly, it’s darkly funny, and the characters feel real. Part of this success is the mundane day-to-day of their factory jobs which has brought them together in the first place. The drudgery, the poor pay, the jobsworth supervisor, the roller passed over their uniforms before they can set foot on the factory floor, all ground the story, give it authenticity, so when the outlandish stuff starts to happen and we’re in Masako’s bathroom chopping up Yayoi’s husband, we take the leap with them.

And so, in Squeaky Clean, I found myself writing about using degreaser to remove brake dust, making sure your hoody is without zip, wearing ‘glove sandwiches’ (latex glove under woollen glove under another latex glove) during winter to try to keep your hands warm and dry, scrubbing flies and grit and bird crap. The smell of car soap and window polish. I wrote about waiting around in the cold for cars to show up, drinking insane amounts of tea, the boss chain-smoking joints and cooking square sausage on a George Foreman grill.

From here, it’s just a small hop to murder and mayhem.


SQUEAKY CLEAN is published by Pushkin Press (2 Mar. 2023) HBK £16.99 EBOOK:  £5.69







Callum McSorley

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