One Foot In The Grave

on foot in the grave

    Union steward and amateur sleuth Lenny Moss is back with a vengeance in One Foot in the Grave, the eighth novel in a series by Timothy Sheard (Hard Ball Press, 2019). This time, anti-worker technology takes center stage in a murder story set at the fictional James Madison Hospital of Philadelphia. But the real drama pits employer surveillance gadgets versus  MacGyver- style creativity, all of which are utilized in the power struggle between health care workers and hospital management. And, oh yes, there’s a psychopath with a grudge, bent on payback, thrown into the mix for good measure.

Lenny Moss is an unlikely detective, especially since he already holds two full-time jobs. He’s a hospital custodian doing his best to keep patients and staff safe from a new form of the Zika virus. He is also the lead Union steward in the Hospital and Service Workers Union, a vigilant defender of labor rights.

Here at James Madison, a doctor contracts a mysterious illness— is it Zika?— and she just keeps getting sicker. Like a good episode of the television drama House, physicians consider all sources and every possible solution to save her life. Meanwhile, medical workers struggle with job stress, short staffing, inadequate supplies, and lack of respect, while they do what they do best: keep the hospital running efficiently in spite of penny-pinching, imperious administrators.

This is where low-tech fixes play a role: home supply retail stores provide the items that protect caregivers from infection, and common sense tools are used to adapt ordinary patient rooms into germ-fighting zones. Also featured are vape cigarettes, broken Q-tips, and the ubiquitous anatomy dummy.

The employer has his own high-tech innovation, the hated “GPS Units” that nurses are forced to wear around their necks in order to receive patient calls. These devices also have an insidious purpose, since dispatchers can hear every word an RN utters during her shift (and in the ultimate privacy invasion, all noises in the staff bathroom). The nurses, unfortunately, are not unionized. They have no recourse against this invasive “Big Brother” practice imposed by the boss and utilized by the head of security, who acts more like a super spook than a hospital employee.

The most potent weapon the union workers have, however, is their solidarity.  Here author Tim Sheard puts his own experience as an active union steward to good use. Sheard weaves in examples of workers supporting each other on the job, not only to protect their rights, but to catch the bad guy. Sheard seasons the plot with union wisdom and principled action designed to build workers’ power on the job.

There are small touches that enrich Sheard’s story, like the names he gives his protagonists: Dr. Leslie Fingers, Moose Maddox, Little Mary, Patience Moss, and more. As well, Jane Austen fans will enjoy the nod to her famous work when one hospital character takes on a Pride and Prejudice pseudonym.

This latest Lenny Moss installment captures the working class lives of a Philadelphia hospital the same way K.B. Gilden’s 1971 novel Between the Hills and the Sea represents workers on the factory floor and in the neighborhoods of an old northeastern industrial city.

As One Foot in the Grave unfolds its crime plot, the action takes on a brisk pace, making this book a great beach-vacation read. You don’t have to be a union member to enjoy the ride, but activists will get a special kick from Lenny Moss and his stalwart co-workers.

Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer and the creator of The Shoeleather History Project ( which documents and explores the stories of working people. He is the author of three books: A Shoeleather History of the Wobblies: Stories of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Connecticut (2013); Wicked Hartford (The History Press, 2018); and Good Trouble: A Shoeleather History of Nonviolent Direct Action (Hard Ball Press, 2019)


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