Robert Jackson Bennett
alternate history/science fiction
April 11, 2011
accquired: galley received through NetGalley
The blurb, from Goodreads:
The year is 1919. The McNaughton Corporation is the pinnacle of American industry. They built the guns that won the Great War before it even began. They built the airships that tie the world together. And, above all, they built Evesden – a shining metropolis, the best that the world has to offer.
But something is rotten at the heart of the city. Deep underground, a trolley car pulls into a station with eleven dead bodies inside. Four minutes before, the victims were seen boarding at the previous station. Eleven men and women butchered by hand in the blink of an eye. All are dead. And all are union.
Now, one man, Cyril Hayes, must fix this. There is a dark secret behind the inventions of McNaughton, and with a war brewing between the executives and the workers, the truth must be discovered before the whole city burns. Caught between the union and the company, between the police and the victims, Hayes must uncover the mystery before it kills him.
I wasn’t sure, when I requested The Company Man, what to expect. The cover art looks very noir to me, and except for the mention of airships on the back cover blurb, it could have been a murder mystery. And it is, in part. It is also social commentary, steampunk, horror, and science fiction.
The novel opens with the discovery of a body. It is the four hundred and eighty-sixth murder in Evesden that year, and Donald Garvey, the detective who will end up with the investigation, has no real hope of identifying thebody or solving the murder. It is a gory scene full of jaded men and a certain hopelessness, and as such it sets the tone for the city and for the rest of the novel.
Garvey pulls in a friend, Cyril Hayes, to determine if the murdered man is an employee of McNaughton, and it is in their interaction that Bennett showcases what I think is the best aspect of this story: the characterizations and dialogue. Hayes and Garvey have an easy interaction that speaks of a long friendship and great understanding of one another. It’s in this opening scene, too, that I began to realize that Hayes is a little bit like Columbo: disheveled, a mess, easily underestimated, but quite observant and smart.
Near the beginning of the narrative there’s a fair bit of exposition and information-dumping about the history of Evesden, and the storied history of the fabled McNaughton company, which dominates the world in a way that Rockerfeller or Microsoft could only dream of. Once past the information dump, though, the story picks up and we follow Hayes as he explores the depths of Evesden and McNaughton. Hayes is first and foremost a tool of the company, recruited from abroad for his talents and brought into the heart of the company to help them investigate and manage their weak spots (be they management or workers).
The knot of political scheming and machinations unravels at a steady pace, thanks largely to Hayes’ abilities and connections, Garvey’s dedication to his job and city, and to Hayes’ assistant (and would-be wrangler) Samantha Fairbanks, who is quite possibly the only “pure” person in the cast we get to meet. I feel like there’s some something there that I should address–a woman being the only good thing that Hayes and Garvey feel they have in their lives. She’s young, fresh, and hasn’t had the long years of terrible exposure to all the ills of society the way the two men have, so she’s a precious thing to be cherished. Fairbanks is also terribly book smart and earnest. In some ways to me it feels like she’s the Watson to Hayes’ Holmes.
The three characters work beautifully together, and their characterizations, in combination with the mystery that Hayes begins to unravel and understand, make for a good read. I’m glad to have gotten the chance to experience The Company Man before its general release date. While I wasn’t sure about the slowish start, and I had to ponder the ending for a few days before I wrote up the review, I’d gladly recommend the story to my friends. This is a little bit mystery, horror, steampunk, and sci-fi, and all those elements work to make a great story.