Book Review

Sherlock with a Working Class Eyeglass

By Gregg Shotwell

The Lenny Moss Mystery Series1

By Timothy Sheard

(Hardball Press)

The art of fiction reveals the underlying truth of human relations: we are communal and collaborative by nature. Selfishness and greed are social aberrations because they violate self-preservation. No wonder we are fascinated with crime stories, they mirror our common experience. Capitalism is high crime disguised as church doctrine. Conspiracy is evident though the evidence is concealed. Hence, our fascination with the detective genre. We are in dire need of Timothy Sheard’s scrutiny—a detective who peers through a working class eyeglass.

Early in our evolution we made up stories. We created heroes and villains. We devised mnemonic tools like rhyme. We sang and danced and acted. We invented tales not only to relate our experience and record our history, but to make what never happened before a summit to climb.

Boredom is the luxury of the idle rich. We didn’t fabricate stories about gods and demons because we were bored. Fiction was an instrument of survival. Fiction made ideas spring to life in advance of the next predator.

Marxists used to live in the trenches. Today, they largely study class conflict from an “objective” standpoint. I don’t need a footnote to assert that the Left is decimated by the estrangement of intellectuals from workers. There is no dearth of books which expound our social plight, but where is our Jon Dos Passos? Where is our Grapes of Wrath? Who’s writing the new Waiting for Lefty?

The foundation of a just society isn’t defined by scholars but rather the struggle of the working class. Indeed, the world is in the care of workers. We need an author with a union steward’s point of view.

Seven novels in the Lenny Moss mystery series By Timothy Sheard (Hardball Press) all take place in a hospital in Philadelphia. Sheard is a retired nurse. His detective is a custodian, a Columbo style gumshoe who doesn’t carry a gun or badge but packs a rod of perseverance in pursuit of criminals and ruthless managers. “Cannibals ruled the hospital.”

Lenny Moss is a union steward in the hospital. His primary aim is defending fellow workers. “But hey, the bosses broke the law every day, sometimes you’ve got to stretch the boundaries; take some chances; live a little outside the law. Lenny well knew the trick was not getting caught.” Sounds like some union stewards I knew back in the rough and tumble days.

Sheard doesn’t hold back the suspense or the blood and guts. The first two sentences on page one of No Place to be Sick: “One minute to midnight. A perfect time to die.”

On page two of This Won’t Hurt a Bit, two students, Kate and Jennifer, are cutting up a cadaver in the lab. Jennifer says, “After you finish the groin I guess I’ll dissect the scrotum…Katie, I know that dick! I mean, I know that guy!”

Sheard knows how to keep a reader turning pages despite the fact his leading man “was the sort of fellow who went unnoticed on a crowded sidewalk. His black-framed glasses perched on a broad nose beneath thick, arching eyebrows and coarse, untidy hair. He needed a haircut, but he always seemed to need a haircut. And a shave.”

Lenny Moss is preoccupied with custodial duties and a constant flood of grievances. In that respect the hospital isn’t different from the factories I grew up in. Workers including nurses and techs are pressured to work harder and faster and longer for less. The stress is relentless and no one in management is ever responsible for anything except profit and smiling for photo-ops. The core-to-core class conflict between labor and management is present on every page. Moss doesn’t miss a beat.

No classic American detective would be without his booze and his auto. Lenny Moss prefers Yuengling lager, the oldest brewery in America located in nearby Pottsville, Pennsylvia. He drives an old Buick V-8 he inherited from his father. Lenny enjoys “the low rumble of the big block and the way the car rocked gently when the engine first turned over.” Unlike typical American detectives, his weapon is perception and his advantage in any battle isn’t bare knuckles or bullets, it’s solidarity.

I rarely read mysteries. I usually find the plots contrived, the characters one dimensional, and the dialogue fake. Sheard’s characters remind me of people I know, people I worked with, people who have more than two sides and surprise me in times of crisis. Lenny Moss doesn’t talk about socialism but his perspective is working class—multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and bonded in camaraderie against the bossing class.

Sheard doesn’t pretend the working class is angelic. Some, not all of them, drink alcohol on the lunch hour, smoke weed, and bring weapons to work. They cut corners and squeeze superglue into the time clock. They have all the vices and foibles our culture has devised. They also keep the hospital humming like a Buick V-8 on a straightaway. They have families and sweethearts, love and grief, honor and loyalty. The knowledge Moss gleaned representing workers has honed his perception and sharpened his intuition.

In short declarative sentences Sheard demonstrates the principle of solidarity in action. The dialogue is concise and natural. He shows rather than explains how a strong union functions. Class conflict is revealed from a working class perspective.

Of the seven Lenny Moss mysteries I’d say my favorite is No Place to Be Sick. As in the Columbo series, readers know who the murderer is from the get-go. Moss and his coworkers have to detect and catch the sinister doctor themselves. Workers take justice into their own hands in a Mickey Spillane-like version of Vengeance is Mine.

You can bet the blacklisted Dashiel Hammet would have Sheard on his nightstand.

(This article was originally published in The Monthly Review, October 31, 2016. —Gregg Shotwell)

Veteran nurse Timothy Sheard is a writer, a mentor to writers, an organizer with the New York Chapter of the National Writers Union (UAW Local 1981), and founder of Hard Ball Press, a progressive publishing company.

After writing seven acclaimed mystery novels featuring hospital custodian-shop steward Lenny Moss, Timothy retired from hospital duty and launched Hard Ball Press in order to help worker writers find their voice and publish their stories. He also offers low cost editing and self-publishing services for writers who want to produce their own books.

Timothy has offered many writing workshops at colleges, universities, libraries and unions. He finds the “gold” sparkling in a story or essay and helps the writer identify and polish that prose so that it touches the reader’s heart and informs the mind.

The proud father of two fine sons, he lives with his wife Mary in Brooklyn, NY.

1 Titles in order:

This Won’t Hurt A Bit

Some Cuts Never Heal

A Race Against Death

Slim To None

No Place To Be Sick

A Bitter Pill

Someone Has To Die

(Stand-alone crime novels)

Love Dies

In Hiding