Review: A Bitter Pill: A Lenny Moss Mystery

A Bitter Pill, by Timothy Sheard. Hardball Press, 2013. $15.

Lenny Moss is a janitor at James Madison Medical Center in Philadelphia. He is also the shop steward and the central figure in a series of mystery novels, of which A Bitter Pill is the sixth.

Lenny is confronted with a number of challenges all at once. James Madison has been sold to a for-profit company, which hopes to cut costs radically—especially labor costs—and also to market upscale services to the rich. To do this the company needs to break the union—which, like many unions, has let relations with some of its members atrophy over the years.

Under the threat of closure, more than a few members are open to decertification, and initially join management’s campaign. To complicate matters, at just this time a troubled worker is found hanging in a little-used room in the hospital. Seems like a suicide—but is it really?

Lenny and his circle of friends and co-workers find more and more reasons to suspect murder, but they have to find proof and convince the police to investigate. Making their job harder, hospital administration wants this case closed as soon as possible. There are plenty of twists and turns, all with the quiet force of intense realism, as anyone who has worked in health care, or even been a hospital patient, can tell.

Pluses of a Smart but Overloaded Steward

Sheard’s Lenny Moss novels have a number of pluses for Labor Notes readers. First, they show a smart, empathetic, and courageous shop steward, who is also fallible, tired, and overloaded with a combination of work, union issues, problematic friends and fellow workers, and personal domestic and health issues.

This is the reason Sheard’s novels have been used in steward training classes for years. They are a wonderful example of how a good unionist can function on the job, and the difficulties one must confront to make that happen.

In my experience as a labor educator, Lenny and his friends never fail to stimulate useful discussion. After reading an excerpt for class, many stewards decide to read the whole book.

Another plus is that A Bitter Pill clearly shows some of the inherent conflicts in a big, multi-unit union local—between its leadership and staff on the one hand, and a group of workers in one workplace on the other. This union, clearly based on 1199 in Philly, is not perfect—but it is possible, with effort and smarts, for workers to assert their power through it. The workers tackle the for-profit companies’ plans as well as solving the mystery.

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The reader gets a vivid picture of how workers’ lives are more than their work, and that Lenny, like any good shop steward, has to relate to the whole worker in order to build the union, solve the mystery, and save the group to fight another day.

Like all good series, the Lenny Moss mysteries can be read in any order and stand on their own. But the reader who wants to get the full effect, and to view the writer’s progress as an author, should start at the beginning, with This Won’t Hurt a Bit.

All the books are very strong in demonstrating that problems are solved and power is built by getting workers together at the base, not by “smart guys” in offices with computers. The workers and their relationships to each other, to Lenny, and to the various bosses are drawn with care, realism, and sympathy that reveal the long experience Sheard has as a hospital worker, union activist, and careful listener himself.

In fact, the books are, in many ways, an extended fictional demonstration of how to “put the movement back in the labor movement” in one workplace.

If this is not enough, an added reason to buy, read, and spread around these books is that Sheard has not stopped at just writing. As he found that commercial publishers were very limited and unreliable in dealing with books like his, he became first a self-publisher, and now a publisher and editor for other worker-writers. This is in the best tradition of worker literature, back to Jack Conroy or Mike Gold of the 1930s and ’40s.

Sheard’s Hardball Press has put out a number of working-class books, and Sheard has taught and mentored any number of aspiring worker-writers—through college classes, the United Association for Labor Education, and informally. Let’s support him!

Order A Bitter Pill and other Lenny Moss mysteries from Hardball Press.

Joe Berry is a retired labor educator.