Monday, April 18, 2011

“The Company Man” by Robert Jackson Bennett (Orbit)


An intriguing noir-thriller with a difference

A trolley car pulls into the station with eleven dead bodies inside. Four minutes before, the factory workers were seen boarding at the previous station. Now, all are dead. And all of them are union.

The year is 1919. The McNaughton Corporation is the pinnacle of American industry. They built airships that crossed the seas. Guns that won the Great War. And above all, they built Evesden: the city of tomorrow, dominated by the immense McNaughton Tower. But something is rotten at the heart of Evesden and one man must uncover its dark secret before it all goes up in flames.

Caught between the union and the company, between the police and the victims, McNaughton investigator Cyril Hayes must find the truth behind the city of the future. Because if he doesn’t . . . he’s history.

The Company Man is a noir-ish crime thriller set in an alternate 1919 America. It is a time in which the McNaughton Corporation, a mega-company that dominates global innovation and trade, is at the heart of America’s power. The novel draws on elements of a number of genres to make it an intriguing and original read.

The (alternate) times are brought to life on the page, and we get a real, visceral feel for the world – from the glistening spires of corporate dominion, to the grim shanties and drug dens of Evesden, Bennett has a real flair for writing location and atmosphere. The setting is America, of course, but one in which Teddy Roosevelt had not become president and didn’t smash the monopolies. Unionisation has been stalled and delayed and a corporation sits at the pinnacle of America’s power and influence. It’s the Carnegie and Vanderbilt families, combined and on steroids (though minus the drama and aristocratic Upper East Side mindset).

The novel taps into a strong anti-Corporatist sentiment, painting the McNaughton Company as a many-tentacled corporation connected with, and to, everything and everyone. Indeed, McNaughton was central in averting World War I, and brought peace to the world, so tight was its control of technology, communications, and commerce that “the second a shot gets fired, they [would] turn off the tap. No more airships, no more telephones. It’d be bad for business.”

At the start of the novel, Detective Garvey calls in Cyril Hayes, a McNaughton Fixer, to help with a dead body found floating in one of Evesden’s canals. This body turns out to be the first of many, as a string of murders, seemingly connected to the growing support of those favouring unionisation, puzzles the Evesden authorities (both the police and McNaughton management). Apparently, the Corporation isn’t acting on the information Hayes and Fairbanks turn up, but then when the murders start, the two Fixers become suspicious, and increasingly turn to Garvey, whose Police Department is basically controlled by McNaughton as well, and who finds himself increasingly pushed aside on the Trolley investigation. As unionists start dropping, the Company scrambles to pre-empt the natural assumption that it’s their doing, but the evidence is piling up against them, and an underground Unionisation movement is gathering speed and support. The more our protagonists dig, the more they come to realise that there is far more to the Union problem than anyone first believed. (In this respect, it’s a very timely novel, for anyone following the Wisconsin political battles at the moment.)

Running as a backdrop to the murders, and informing much of the social struggle of the time, is a message critical of rampant, unregulated corporate power and influence. This includes its impact on the lower strata of society, through the effect of the Corporation’s fears of unionisation and its efforts to squash the spread of collective bargaining and enforcement of fair wages – every McNaughton employee has experienced a steady erosion of earnings, even though the Corporation reaps ever-more profits. Unionisation – both its good and bad elements – are becoming a problem for McNaughton managers, who order Hayes and Fairbanks to investigate and collect names of the troublemakers (think McCarthyism but for unions).

The central characters of the novel are very well-created and -realised: Cyril Hayes, the eccentric, drug-addicted investigator (somewhat reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s character in From Hell), has some amazing intellectual talents that are not entirely natural, and unnerve those who discover them. Garvey, the dogged cop, ever-calm and professional, who could be described as Hayes’ only friend in Evesden, takes advantage of Hayes’ unusual talents, tapping into the latter’s addiction to the chase and puzzle-solving. Samantha Fairbanks, Hayes’ new (and unwanted) assistant – well-meaning, but slightly naïve about corporate tactics and shenanigans – also acts as a moral anchor for the oft-wayward Hayes.

At first, I found Bennett’s prose a little difficult to get used to, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. There was something about the first few chapters that lacked the smooth flow of much of the rest of the book (or perhaps I just got used to it, the more I read), and some of the dialogue felt a little stutter-start, not quite as natural as it becomes as the novel progressed. After the Trolley massacre mentioned in the synopsis, the pace and tension increase, and things moved along much more briskly, and I found myself quite gripped by the story. (The event happens almost 100 pages into the novel, following a few chapters that establish the city, characters, and society, situating them for the reader in this alternative US timeline. It’s well done, and written in a way that doesn’t feel like an intrusive info-dump.)

The novel includes some interesting ideas, but sometimes felt like it was spinning its wheels, taking a long time to really get anywhere. As mentioned above, the events in the back-cover blurb took 100 pages to happen, and after another 100 pages, nothing much else had happened, really. It’s almost like the author was dancing around the plot, rather than pushing it forward. As a crime thriller (with a difference), the pacing was therefore slightly off, but I do think the ideas and characters are there – in fact, I really liked Hayes, Garvey and Fairbanks, so it’s a pity the story wasn’t as exciting or gripping as I’d hoped. Most of the pacing issues are fixed for the final 150 pages, which I blew through at quite a clip (reading it until 3am).

It’s not a novel I found it easy to just dip in and out of, which I was forced to do at the start (life has a tendency to irritate, at the moment), and this might account for my issues with it. When I was able to sit down and read it without distractions, however, Bennett’s writing does have a hypnotic quality, one that will pull you along and into his world. The characters – main and peripheral – are so colourful, sympathetic and engaging; and the official, corporate, and underworld elements of Evesden city are interesting and expertly juxtaposed, brought to life on the page in ordered and squalid detail, respectively.

If you like slow-burning crime thrillers, with noir (almost pulp) sensibilities and an understated, late-revealed horror-supernatural element, then The Company Man will be right up your alley. I do believe Bennett is an author to watch, and I’ll be interested to see what he comes up with next. While the pacing may have been a little off, the author has a gift for characterisation, atmospherics and world-building, and the premise is intriguing from the get-go.

So, recommended, but with a caveat for pacing.

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