If Upton Sinclair and Philip K. Dick had collaborated to write a Sam Spade novel, they might have produced The Company Man. Poor working conditions and inadequate wages cause conflict between labor and management, leading to murders in the slums that are investigated by a noir-coated private detective, and it all takes place in an alternate history where mysterious machinery seem to be speaking to those who toil or dwell beneath a vast city. I'm not sure when I've read a science fiction novel quite as odd as The Company Man.
The company in question is McNaughton Western Foundry Corp. which, by 1919 (when the novel takes place) has become the world leader in technology. It is so powerful that it averted World War I by threatening to cut off production of products (like airships) that could be used militarily. Credit for McNaughton's innovative technological breakthroughs is given to Lawrence Kulahee, an eccentric inventor who died in 1904. The company continued to grow despite his death, as did the former fishing village of Evesden, near Puget Sound, now a thriving metropolis with smokestacks and slums and dozens of murders each month. One of the murders -- of a man found floating in a canal -- prompts police detective Garvey to contact Cyril Hayes, who plays a murky role in McNaughton's security force. As Hayes tries to determine whether the nameless corpse is affiliated with McNaughton, he's assigned to investigate the union movement, which is suspected of sabotaging the corporation's factories. The lovely Samantha Fairbanks is asked to keep an eye on Hayes, who has a problem with opium and alcohol. Notwithstanding his addictions, Hayes has an unusual talent: he can establish a telepathic connection with people that grows stronger the longer he's in contact with them. Hayes' twin investigations of the murder and union violence eventually converge but only after he begins to believe all the underground workers who claim that McNaughton's mysterious machinery is trying to talk to them.
Hayes has the kind of troubled soul that's standard for genre heroes, but Bennett managed to give him an interesting background and enough personality to make him memorable. The other characters aren't particularly special yet neither are they trite. While Hayes is hardly the first science fiction character to be blessed (or cursed) with some form of telepathic power, Bennett's description of its operation places it outside the ordinary. The story is, at times, surprisingly poignant, although it's generally quite dark. Perhaps at the novel's end Bennett tries to do too much, giving the story an almost mystical quality, an upbeat tone that seemed out of place in a decidedly downbeat novel, but that didn't impair my enjoyment of the strange story that Bennett concocted. There's room for a sequel here; if Bennett writes it, I'll read it.
I have to admit, this book's gumshoe pulp fiction-style cover art caught my attention immediately. And once I skimmed the jacket copy and realized that it had a science-fiction element to it, I was hooked. The story takes place in 1919, in a world where a single company based on the coast of Washington State has developed leading technology in every field important to mankind. From airships to advanced weaponry to wireless transmitters, the McNaughton Corporation is powerful enough to direct the course of nation-states. An entire metropolis has risen around its humble initial facilities, and Evesden is now the largest city in the world.
However, despite the untold power and wealth residing in the company, the city has a seedy and destitute side to it. And down those dark streets walks the company's odd fixer Cyril Hayes. He possesses the power to create a kind of telepathic bond with anyone he spends time with, eventually being able to charm them and more or less read their thoughts. In the past he's ferreted out industrial spies and secret-sellers, and now he's trying to figure out both how and why a trolly car of eleven unionists pulled into a station with everyone on board completely slaughtered. Helping him is his new organizer/researcher/librarian/assistant, Ms. Fairbanks, and together with Cyril's policeman friend, Detective Garvey, they form a very odd heroic trio.
Unfortunately, about halfway through, the inventiveness starts to wear thin on the book, and the supernatural element starts to become more and more prominent. The mystery of the union murders starts to shift into a kind of X-Files conspiracy and before too long, the hint of alien mumbo-jumbo starts to poke though. I definitely started to lose enthusiasm for the book as the science-fiction elements grew more and more prominent, and by the end I was close to just skimming to see how things turned out. Cyril is the one really interesting character, by turns cantankerous and crafty, and his telepathic ability is described and handled really well. Some of the supporting characters, like his boss, and an underworld contact, come across vividly on the page, but his friend Garvey and assistant Fairbanks are both kind of cardboard types.
The writing has a very rich visual style to it, and to a certain extent I wonder if the story might have worked better in a more visual medium, like a graphic novel, or a film. Still, if you like offbeat crime stories or real-world based science fiction, or genre-blending of the two, this might be worth your time to check out.
on May 25, 2011
This book really is a world of its own. It sucks you in from page one and manages to immerse you into the fictional town of Evesden, Washington and the main protagonist, Cyril Hayes. Bennett manages to capture the essence of the steam age perfectly in Evesden, a town ruled by the powerhouse industry of McNaughton and all its seemingly-impossible inventions. True to the industry age, Evesden is a dirty place overpopulated with desperate workers who form unions to go against the industry of McNaughton. We have children starving in streets side-by-side with fantastical inventions used to run the lights, the tram, everything. It only takes a few short pages of explanation here and there for the reader to quickly grasp the basics of the city of Evesden, and more and more unfold details and secrets unfold as the story goes along.
The narrative juggles between Hayes and his assistant, Samantha, as well as his cop-friend Garvey. Each of them had ups and downs for me. Hayes especially has many faults side-by-side with his genius--I found myself being annoyed with him and utterly intrigued by him at the same time. Hayes has a unique gift for "reading" people which can breech into genuine mind-reading, and McNaughton uses him to investigate any threats against its company. Hayes is a bit of an eccentric, a wild card, and an intriguing mystery from the beginning. He fits the anti-hero personality almost too well and from the beginning he seems to fall deeper and deeper into trouble both externally and internally--even as Hayes quickly becomes involved in the great mystery of the story his health rapidly deteriorates, which adds additional trouble. Compared to Hayes, Samantha seemed rather flat to me, and Garvey while more interesting still did not have much mystery around him.
This story is long, and it is very grim. Don't expect all grins and laughs in this heavy-noir tale. As you learn more and more about Evesden you realize that all is not well in the city and it is only getting worse. To some the story may seem to lag a bit with no definite objective ("we have to solve this mystery" is the primary goal but sometimes the plot seems to drift here and there as to how to actually solve it). The story all comes together in the end, however, with an appropriately grand finale. So if you like steampunk, and you like noir, and you like eccentric detectives, then definitely give this one a try.
on July 8, 2011
Bennett's sophomore novel is a steampunk noir standalone that takes place in an alternate Western Washington of 1919 where airships rule the sky and World War I never happened. The company in question is McNoughton Western Foundary Corporation, and the man is Hayes--a skinny version of Chandler's famous Philip Marlowe character. Hayes has been hired to keep tabs on the union men. He is a man with "no badge, no gun, no pension, and no allegiance to the city or any jurisdiction" (pg. 15). Hayes and police detective Garvey, team up with Samantha (a woman hired by the company to keep tabs on Hayes) to solve the union problem and instead uncover an ancient alien sentient machine that has the answers about how to save humanity from certain destruction.
While Hayes is a cliché character (a haunted, addicted investigator running from his own past) with cliché actions ("Hayes would pull his face down into his collar and merge with the nearest group of people" pg. 252), Bennett draws a beautiful landscape with a juxtaposition between the steamy, socialist-type workers of the underground and the cold, straight-lined world above. The union-busting theme is one echoed in the news today, and there are even nods to Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and The Bible in Bennett's novel.
This is an excellent novel that would entertain mystery and sci-fi fans, or anyone who just wanted a really good read.
on August 8, 2015
I just finished reading Robert Jackson Bennett's "The Company Man".
It is a science fiction of a different bent. A combination of SCI FI, gritty noir, and almost steampunk. It takes place around 1920 on the west coast of American in a city fueled by fantastic technologies but mired in poverty and dark secrets. While this is an alternate history story, it is written a lot like the old 1930's and 40's SCI FI, social philosophy, and detective novels/movies many of us grew up on. The story has a nostalgic feeling that is overshadowed with knowledge from today. The reader finds herself sometimes a step ahead of the book's characters based on what we know today, but then deliciously falls behind the characters' understanding as the plot progresses and new twists unfold.
The three main characters in the book are very intelligent and special. They are definitely a product of their times. They exhibit what I would call an old fashion sense of honor and romantic vision, while still fighting their own internal demons. The main character of the three (though all are dominant to the story) is uniquely gifted and terribly tortured by this gift. The secondary characters are of course less resolved, but still distinct. And the bad guys have many grey edges.
The plot is convoluted but never confusing. While I figured out where some things were headed, I still found myself surprised and happily confounded. There are internal and external battles, moments of great sadness, horror, and death, but also a theme of strong friendships, duty, honor. And Mr Bennett's poetic style of writing, his beautifully descriptive prose, overlays wonderfully over the entire setting. I won't forget this book, these characters, this city, or this world any time soon.
A different but fantastic read. I loved it.
on November 25, 2014
Cyril Hayes is a Company man for the McNaughton Corporation. In this alternate Earth tale taking place in the 1920's, McNaughton is the largest company in the world, and Hayes is their top troubleshooter. Hayes has had a tough life due to his ability to "read" people, whether through a knack of some kind or through some psychic talent. A talent that drives him to drink and drugs.
The action takes place in Evesdon, the Company's home city on the ocean somewhere in the American northwest. Hayes has been investigating a murder with the local police that may or may not be union-related. Things move slowly until eleven more Company employees, all union activists, are mysteriously murdered on a subway car. Hayes is then provided with an assistant in order to get to the bottom of it all before the Company gets blamed.
This book is a real "film noir" story, moving slowly but inexorably toward the end. You'll need some patience as story parts are brought to the fore, set aside, and revisited as the book goes on, but the patience is worthwhile.
Since the late 1800s, the McNaughton Corporation has provided incredible technological wonders to the world, the source of which is quite mysterious, and the wonders are much more advanced than anything in our own timeline in the 1920s (for example, at one point early in the novel there is a failed attempt at launching an orbital vehicle). These miraculous inventions, and their source, become key to the story as Hayes attempts to get to the story behind the story that his bosses are throwing at him. The various subplots all come together nicely by the time Hayes and the reader figure out what's really happening here.
The city of Evesdon reminds me a little of New Crobuzon from "Perdido Street Station" in terms of all of the nooks and crannies and history and differing people within the city. This "shining metropolis" that is supposed to be the showcase for the McNaughton Corporation is, of course, anything but. Just as most cities have a dirty underside, Evesdon surpasses that with many levels of dirty underside, both literally and figuratively. Indeed, the city itself plays as large a part in this novel as any of the main characters.
Bennett has fleshed out a nice piece of universe in this story. I'm hoping he revisits it at some point.
on July 8, 2012
It's not yet 1920 but electric cars, airships and broadcast power are all commonplace, thanks to the amazing inventions of a backwoods genius. Evesden, once a small fishing village in the Pacific Northwest, is now the economic powerhouse of the world, a magnet for workers, migrants and criminals. The McNaughton Company runs Evesden, owns Evesden, and is riding high on its patents and the power that comes from ending the Great War with superweapons. But not even this mighty company can understand how all the passengers on a trolley-car can be slaughtered between stops, in a space of minutes.
Cyril Hayes is the Company Man of the title: an expatriate Englishman, a fixer and finder-out of things forgotten, very much out place in the factories and slums of Evesden. His connection with the McNaughton Company means he can brush aside the local police to investigate the killings, and his strange ability - an empathy bordering on telepathy - means he's likely to get the job done quicker.
The Company Man is a kind of mix of steampunk and film noir: along with Hayes, the hard-drinking private detective, there is a slightly bent but basically decent copper and an ingenue secretary. Between them they find out the Company's terrible secret and the true source of its power. For me this was the chief disappointment in the book: a literal deus ex machina that gives an explanation but little satisfaction. And while Bennet demonstrates a kind of noir-ish poetry in his writing at times, the book is marred by occasional clumsiness: a character watching headlights fade into the distance, for example. I enjoyed The Company Man but I found its premises hard to accept - and this is an important factor in genre fiction: you can make the premises as outrageous as you like, but you have to sell them. In many ways, by trying to solve all the book's mysteries (with that mechanical god) Bennet undermines it, and the various genres it borrows from.
on August 10, 2012
While the character development within this novel is very good, the dystopia and noir of the novel is very depressing. The faint glimmer of hope at the end of the story is not enough to lift the dark clouds of hopelessness, which is the prevalent attitude throughout the story.
I enjoy steampunk novels, and early on, I had hoped this novel would be similar to them - alternate history, machines, and all that - but it did not stick to form and the continual emotional drain distracted from the actual unfolding of the plot. Ironically, the emotional drain contributed to the better than average character development within the plot. The three main characters change markedly and realistically during the story.
The mystery story itself was engaging and resolved itself by the end of the novel. The elements of it seemed too few and far apart, but it came together nicely within the context of the story. If you like gray clouds in weather, emotions, and events, you will probably like this book. However, if you are already depressed, please consider reading something with a more hopeful ending and allow it to lift your spirits.
on January 26, 2013
I just finished "The Company Man", and I am amazed. Set in an alternate 1919-1920, plenty of airships and fantastical machines which gives it an almost Steampunk/Dieselpunk feel, yet at its heart, this book is pure Noir. The author's use of imagery paints a beautifully vivid picture. I connot remember the last time an author's words brought me so completely into the world of the book. Highly recommended!
on October 25, 2013
Cyril Hayes is just one man who works for McNaughton but he's an alcoholic and addicted to drugs. His drug of choice is opium which he uses to drown out the impressions and thoughts that invade his mind. Yes, Hayes is unique among men. He can hear the thoughts of others who are close to him and the longer he is close to anyone the more he knows about them. It's driving him crazy but that talent is why McNaughton recruited him. His only friend and confidante is Garvey, a policeman with idealistic goals.
As Cyril's downward spiral increases his supervisor decides he needs someone to organize his work. That someone is Samantha, an incredibly talented researcher and organizer. The company wants her to control Hayes but can he be controlled?
The corporation and many of the world's talented people are located in Evesden, a progressive city which spawns wonders that control much of what occurs in the world. However, Hayes believes that something is terribly wrong either in the world or inside McNaughton.
The story develops at a rapid rate. People die for unknown reasons and secrets abound within McNaughton. Are they healthy or not? Workers are organizing a union to protest lowered wages and unsafe working conditions. Is the union becoming violent. I found this fast paced book exciting unable to put aside. This is one of the rare mysteries that receive a five star rating from me. It's a science fiction mystery that I totally enjoyed and recommend highly.