“I am a messenger . . . sent from afar.”
Robert Jackson Bennett is the author of Mr. Shivers, the best dark fantasy novel that I’ve read in a long time. Bennett delivers again with The Company Man, a detective noir science fiction novel set in a North America that is both familiar and radically changed.
The year is 1919. The city of Evesden perches on the shore of Washington State’s Puget Sound, a precarious balance of wealth and desperate poverty. The city holds the McNaughton Company’s corporate headquarters and many of its factories, and McNaughton patents have changed the world. They invented the airships that circle the globe, harnessed lightning, and with their new invention, The Siblings, are scratching at the door of quantum physics. McNaughton stopped World War I almost before it began. No other company, or even government, has its power. The Company’s secret isn’t its many patents, it’s where the patents come from. A corporate folktale hides the true source of the lucrative inventions.
All is not well in Evesden. Bennett lets us know this in his first paragraph, describing not the elegant, futuristic city center but a nearby slum.
“The canal was a gray, rotting thing, so polluted and turgid that what it contained could hardly be called water at all. It wound below the stone arches and the spiderweb trusses of its many bridges, and at each bend it gained yet more refuse. At one turning enough sediment and muck had happened to gather and dry to become something like soil. There small, mousy reeds grew and clutched at the passing garbage, forming a staggered little delta that curved out across the canal.”
Despite its incalculable wealth, McNaughton routinely cuts the wages of its factory workers in order to enhance its profits. There are rumors that hundreds of workers, or more, have died in the tunnels underneath the city, working on mysterious machines. Workers have begun to organize, and the Company doesn’t like it.
One morning a trolley pulls into a stop with every passenger in the car dead, cut to pieces. The eleven victims all got on together at a stop four minutes earlier. They were not drugged, or gassed. Not a single victim fought back or tried to get away. All eleven were active in Evesden’s fledgling union.
Three people are drawn into the investigation. Donald Garvey is a homicide detective and a rarity, someone born and raised in Evesden. Samantha Fairbanks works for the Company, and she is assigned to assist Cyril Hayes, the Company’s enigmatic investigator. Hayes self-medicates with alcohol and opium, and we soon find out why; Hayes can hear the thoughts of people around him.
Mr. Shivers was a brief, elegant story, almost a fable. The Company Man is more elaborate, with more activity, nearly a hundred pages longer. Parts of the plot don’t work especially well; a thing called the Red Star Scandal raises more questions than it answers and is not needed. The conspiracy with the union is too obvious and too complicated at the same time. On the other hand, the “who” and the “how” of the murders is believable, inextricably tied up with the secret of the city and the Company, and heartbreaking.
Bennett’s prose hits you like a slug of good bourbon. I developed a split personality reading this book. Part of me wanted to race ahead to see what Hayes was going to do next. Part of me wanted to stop and savor Bennett’s evocative sentences.
“After a while of riding they turned down Grange Avenue and the lights and white stone buildings of Newton swam into view. The thin, smooth tunnel of the train ran between the building tops like calligraphy, and here and there it dipped to the platforms, its car windows strobing in its descent. Up above the streets an arched glass walkway stretched from one building to another, and though it was empty the starlight refracted through it to make a ghostly prism suspended in the sky. . . On nearby rooftops men and women in furs laughed and their merriness rebounded off the walls to rain upon the street. Champagne laughs, lily-petal laughs, pretty and sweet and perfect.”
“. . . perhaps it was dimness of the warehouse or the light from the small fire beside him, but suddenly he looked older than any other person Samantha had ever met before. She had seen such things only once before in her life, when she had been an army nurse and had treated wounded men returning from battle. They had been boys, always boys, no more than twenty, and when they’d walked back through the carnage and the savagery and sat waiting to be treated anyone could look at them and see that they were creatures interrupted. Boys who would never become men. They were something wounded and crippled. Something broken that could not be fixed.”
Samantha wants to salvage something before it is broken. Garvey wants to save his city, which, despite the power and money of the Company, he feels is dying. Hayes wants redemption. These three characters are well-drawn, with believable, distinct voices. Even minor characters stand out. Spinsie and Sookie, who exist to provide information to Hayes, are unique and each have their own history, fears and desires. The only characters that verge on cliché are the two Company drones we meet, Evans and Brightly.
Bennett is writing about an imaginary time and also the here and now, showing how corporate greed infects and corrupts the foundations of things, so that nothing is safe. You can’t count on your job, or your home, while the people in the jade-tipped tower with the Company name in silver letters rake in unimaginable profits. We can imagine the slums encircling the white city, or we can look at the blocks of houses in foreclosure in our own hometowns. Evans and Brightly might as well wear T-shirts that say “Corporate Villains,” but I’m going to let Bennett slide on this because so much else in the book is so good, and because the journey Hayes takes in search of the truth is so harrowing.
This may be grandiose, but I think Bennett might provide for the 2010s what Stephen King did for the 1970s: great skill, a powerful vision and a unique voice.