oddmonster (oddmonster) wrote in bookish,

Review: The Company Man by Robert J Bennett

The Company Man by Robert J Bennett:

Finally one of the larger detectives tackled him and wrapped around his legs, bringing him to the ground. The conductor wept and struggled with him and clawed at the floor. Several patrolmen ran to him, and on took out his truncheon and raised it high.

"Stop!" shouted a voice.

The officers looked over their shoulders to see Samantha furiously striding toward them. They paused, unused to dealing with well-dressed women, particularly ones who were shouting at them.

Synopsis: In an alternate-history Seattle, where one company holds all the cards, a very peculiar man and his assistant set about tracking a labor union leader, the last honest cop works himself to a grizzled nub and everyone conveniently turns a deaf ear to the strange noises the city itself has started making.

Oh, where to begin with this fabulous book.

Right. I know: page 20. That’s right, when you sit down to read this book, do yourself a favor and start at the beginning of Chapter Three, which is page 20. Why? Because the first nineteen pages of the book are a mess: stilted, disjointed language; images that never quite gel in the mind’s eye (it took me three tries to figure out where the corpse was) and two protagonists who are virtually indistinguishable.

But if you let those first two chapter dissuade you from the rest of the book, you’d be missing a real treat.

And the story begins.

Set in an alternate history version of post-WWI America, The Company of the title is The McNaughton Corporation, a suffocating, tentacled miracle of modern life, providing the citizenry with everything it may or may not need, including a shadowy security force dedicated to union-busting.

McNaughton operative Cyril Hayes has a dark secret of his own, one the McNaughton
Company’s only too happy to use to their advantage. Along with his assistant, Samantha, Hayes
is sent after Mickey Tazz, the city’s mysterious union leader, a man who hasn’t been seen in
years, but who’s still spoken of in madly glowing terms by everyone who's never met him.

Then the railcar trolley full of dead men arrives and things get a little unhinged. Because this city’s riddled with more than a network of disused subway tunnels and subterranean laboratories:
some secrets don’t like being contained anywhere.

I enjoyed this book so much.

I loved how it refused to be pinned down. It wasn’t exactly alternate history, and it wasn’t a hardboiled detective story. It wasn’t exactly a Lovecraftian ghost story, but it wasn’t just a steampunk Ayn Rand, either. And then there’s the corpse from the first chapter. I eventually gave up trying to figure out what genre the story was, and I lost count of all the clever literary references I found because I was simply enjoying myself too much.

Hayes’ better half (and for my money, most of the sexual tension was between the two male leads) is Detective Garvey, the last honest cop in the city. If Garvey has a first name I missed it entirely because throughout the text he’s Detective Garvey; it’s not just what he does, but it’s who he is as well, a key to his motivations and fate, something Hayes takes gentle pains to point out. As the city descends into chaos, Hayes, Garvey and Samantha, in the grand tradition of detectives everywhere, doggedly continue to try to locate Mickey Tazz and not get sucked into the complex and deadly machinery that is the McNaughton Corporation. And it is a gloriously dingy romp indeed.

Now, my only other complaint about this book is the treatment of Samantha, the assistant. See, that’s basically what she is throughout.

Later on, she turns into the love interest as well,but despite her integral role in the plot the reader’s never allowed to remember she’s nothing more than a glorified secretary. And indeed, the ending, which I won’t spoil, provides her with a continuance of that role. Garvey chooses his fate and Hayes chooses his as well, but Samantha, at the last, is given the role of a companion to one of the two men, because after all she is “the last good thing in my life.”

That’s right, she’s a thing. People get to choose their fates, but things are carted along for the ride like baggage. It’s an unpleasant set-up and one not worthy of what’s otherwise really an astonishingly good book.

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