07 December, 2011

"The Company Man" by Robert Jackson Bennett

If you've ever sat down with a Philip Marlowe novel and thought, 'Hm, you know what would make this book even more awesome? Airships and mind-readers!' then you'll probably enjoy The Company Man as much as I did. Which, you know, not that I ever had actually had that thought before, but damn if I won't be having it about stuff pretty regularly from now on...

Like most good noir mysteries, The Company Man starts off with a murder. It's October of 1919, a John Doe is found in a canal with his throat slit and a strange tattoo on one arm, and both the police and the McNaughton Company are interested in how he got there. I guess it's not really a spoiler to announce that the McNaughton Company is the villain of the book. They're like the Umbrella Corporation, except instead of viral weapons they make the regular kind-- guns, and lots of them. Guns so powerful that just the threat of them was enough to stop World War I from happening. McNaughton also makes inventions. Airships, subways, generators, all the gears on which a city turns.

The city in question is Evesden, which is somewhere near Seattle. It's the ultimate city on the hill, for America and for the world. Walking its streets are two men, a pair of friends with different loyalties but the same dogged insistence on finding out the truth. Don Garvey is a police detective, a good man and an uncorrupted cop. Cyril Hayes is the titular company man, an agent of McNaughton sent to find things out for them. A drunk and an opium eater, Hayes seems like the last logical choice for a company as squeaky clean as McNaughton-- until we find out that Hayes is telepathic, which makes him exactly the logical choice to find out the truths that people want to keep hidden.

The truth McNaughton is after concerns the attempts of some of its workers to form a union. Naturally, a company as huge as this couldn't have built a city like Evesden in so short a time without exploiting somebody, and as they've continued to grow their people have gotten more and more pissed off. Now a few union men have turned up dead, and Garvey wants Hayes' help in figuring out why. But when a subway car rolls into the station with its occupants, all unioners, grossly and horrifically dead, their lives get abruptly more complicated than they'd thought possible. Confronted with a baffling crime scene, Garvey brings Hayes and his new assistant Samantha Fairbanks into the mess. Samantha is assigned to Hayes by the company to keep him sober and make sure he does what they want-- the letter of their laws, and nothing more. Naturally, things don't go exactly as Samantha expects, and they certainly don't go anything like the company wishes they would. The plot spirals from there in many directions-- down into Evesden's underground, up into the stars, and out across the face of a city dying from within. I can't really talk any more about it without giving things away, but suffice to say there is rarely a dull moment. This is a well-crafted mystery, not the usual whodunit but a complex tangle of many questions trying to be answered by three people who don't really have any idea what they're doing.

I'm going to do my usual harping on language and imagery bit here. I really liked that this book didn't go out of its way to be bleak-- neo-noir can do that, get overly florid with its language and sometimes thereby diminish the effectiveness of its own plot. It's a one-in-a-thousand writer that can hit that gun-metal tone with a plot dramatic and desperate enough to match, and Frank Miller pretty much had that wrapped up from book 1 of Sin City. Bennett lets his story walk the walk for him. It's twisty enough to keep us hooked, and the characters each have their own downward spiraling journey, uncovering layers of themselves and the plot with each chapter. He also has a stellar setting in Evesden, which achieves a sort of Rapture-meets-Gotham atmosphere somewhere at the meeting of humanity's highest hopes and deepest despair. Evesden is the perfect setting for a noir story: sweeping and epic, with a rotting heart. It's so easy to picture the death-defying skyscrapers, the criscrossing airship lines, the spotlights soaring up into the clouds-- but easy, too, are the slums, the shantytowns, the opium dens and trash-choked canals. The two faces of the city also deftly represent the choices the main characters face; which sides of themselves will they choose to favor? Hayes, Garvey and Samantha are all offered this choice over the course of the book, and their choices do, in fact, change the face of Evesden in turn.

I was extremely satisfied at the end of this story. I was a little nervous when I realized this was a steampunk noir (having just reviewed Boneshaker, I didn't want to overload myself on steampunk) but like Boneshaker, the steampunky stuff was so seamlessly meshed in with the story that I almost didn't notice it. I've read some steampunk books where every third person has a boiler-powered wheelchair or a mechanical leg, and everyone travels by zeppelin or the Orient Express-- and those books have their place, certainly. But I like my steampunk a bit subtler, for the form of the world to suit the function of the story rather than the other way around, and both Boneshaker and The Company Man have delivered on that front.

I also enjoyed the ending more than I expected to. After a certain point I had guessed a few plot pieces which I was saddened to see come true (not disappointed because they were predictable; sad because they were really fucking sad) but I really liked the way the characters came out. I'm going to borrow a bit from Mark Reads here and rot-13 my spoilers; just hit up rot13.com if you want to read. --> Vg frrzrq evtug gung Tneirl qvrq orpnhfr ur jnf hanoyr gb punatr (V zrna pbzr ba, jub qbrfa'g frr guebhtu gur byq "oevat nyy gur svyrf gb zr naq rirelguvat jvyy or bxnl" gevpx?) naq Unlrf fheivirq orpnhfr ur jnf oenir rabhtu gb punatr. V YBIRQ gur fprar jvgu uvz va gur sver. Ur arire jnagrq gb or n ureb, ohg jura ur svanyyl tbg gb or, ur ernyvmrq ur jnf tbbq ng vg. V yvxrq gung gur raq jnf ubcrshy, rfcrpvnyyl jura vg unqa'g orra nccrnevat gb urnq va gung qverpgvba sbe zbfg bs gur obbx.

When it came to the portrayal of women in this book, I was conflicted. Is it possible to be both pleasantly surprised and disappointed at the same time? I liked Samantha because she isn't really like any of the women you usually find populating the noir genre. She isn't a femme fatale, neither is she a dame in distress. She's sharp and smart without being cold, capable and efficient without being sexless or matronly (not that those are synonyms, merely a couple of options for female roles in a male-dominated genre) and she is genuinely a likeable character. If anything, she reminded me most of Rear Window's Lisa Fremont-- with a little less sex appeal, but it's pretty hard to top Grace Kelly in that arena-- intelligent, independent and brave. Samantha also has a big heart, and refuses to let it be jaded by the sewers (both literal and figurative) she wades through over the course of the book. I liked her romance with Garvey, it felt genuine, and was a nice surprise given I was convinced for awhile that it was Hayes she'd end up in bed with.

No, my beef with Samantha is that there weren't two of her. Or four. Hell, my beef is that there's no such thing (that I've found, anyway) as a female-dominated noir. Where's my grim and graceful lady detective, my female cop who can't stop hunting for the truth, my CEO or Senator with a few too many skeletons in her closet? The closest I've come to any of these is Veronica Mars, and as much as I love the character and the show (the first season, anyway) Neptune doesn't have that same edge of despair endemic to Marlowe's Los Angeles, or to Evesden. It's interesting, but not as epic. Also, I just want more ladies in my noir, whether it's a high school remix, a steampunk trip or just a classic redone with more women involved.

This seems just not to have been a focus of Bennett's in writing, which is unfortunate but not a dealbreaker. Samantha is a good character and I enjoyed her presence in the story a lot. But while she holds her own among the men of her story, this book is ultimately their story, not hers. She's a symbol to all the men around her, even Brightly. She's on a pedestal, a symbol of purity in the midst of a ruined landscape-- and I loved that she could be that without having to stay a chaste object of adoration for anyone. But I never really got the sense that the men around her knew her very well, except Hayes, who didn't have to try or even ask her that much about herself. I even wondered if Garvey was more in love with what she represented than with her in her own right. She's more of a witness to the events of the book than an instigator of them; while she certainly helps move the plot along, she isn't integral to it in any way. There's nothing she does that Hayes or Garvey couldn't have done for each other (no, seriously) and at the end of the book it was her future more than anyone else's that I wanted to hear more about.

This was an interesting choice to follow Sisters Red because I don't think there are many books in my pile more different from that fun, easy YA read than this. It was dark and gritty and dirty and more than once while reading it I had to pause and sigh, wallowing in glorious angst. This is probably a book I will read again, and I know I've said this of most of the books I've reviewed so far, but I will also be planning to read Bennett's other works at some point. I like his style, I like his characters, and I like that I'm still thinking about it hours after I've put it down. If the best worlds are the ones you keep living in after you stop reading about them, then Bennett's got a place in the winner's circle with Evesden.

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