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The Company Man Paperback – April 11, 2011
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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.
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.
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It is a science fiction of a different bent.Read more