The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett
Published by Orbit UK, April 2011
ISBN: 978 1 84149 792 1
455 pages (plus extras)
Review by Mark Yon
Here’s a pleasant surprise: a detective style film noir, set in the late 1910’s but in an alternate world. A world of gangsters and the Union, in the fictional American city of Evesden, with worn-down detectives and corrupt business. And airships!
In this post-Great War world we have gruff detective Donald Garvey and his slim blonde colleague, Cyril Hayes, who works for The McNaughton Corporation, the Microsoft of its age. Hayes is a washed out alcoholic and addict who deals with the Corporation’s dirty business quietly. Recently he’s been on the skids, and after a botched job is now being supervised very closely by Samantha Fairbanks, up-and-coming company employee. He has to keep his secret talent, that he can sense what others are thinking, very carefully hidden.
There’s someone or something out there killing Union factory workers, and Hayes needs to find out who. Not only because his employees want to know, but also because somebody doesn’t want him to find out. His life is at stake, the death count’s rising – and it could be Hayes next.
Considering that this is only Robert’s second novel, after Mr Shivers (2009), this for me was an impressively assured novel. Its tone and style echoed the opulence and decay of early twentieth century urban America, with all, both the best and worst, it has to offer.
It is a clever little novel which makes you feel immersed into a world of commercial skulduggery, union strikes, corrupt management and mob unrest. Reminiscient of Metropolis, it highlights not only the opportunities that technological development can offer but also shows the dark underbelly of such urban living. It is clear that there is a price to pay for such development. Progress, yes: but at what cost?
The book does slow down in the middle, but the final dénouement that elevates the tale to one worthy of the genre is very well done There is a deus ex machina moment that made me think for a while afterwards, ‘What happens next?’ . The book finishes clearly at an appropriate point but one that left me pondering more.
In summary, I was very pleasantly surprised by this one. Nice worldbuilding, great sense of atmosphere, nice tension on the whole. After being a little disappointed by Mr Shivers, this was a definite step in the right direction. More, please!
Mark Yon, April 2011.