Longtime readers of my blog may remember how I raved about Robert Jackson Bennett’s first novel Mr. Shivers. If that novel, which went on to win the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, marked the debut of a promising new author, his second novel, The Company Man, fulfills that promise handily. After it won a special citation from the Philip K. Dick Award, not to mention the Best Paperback Original Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, to call Bennett a writer to watch is to already be behind the curve.
The Company Man is actually a classic noir mystery at heart, hence the Edgar Award, encased in the trappings of an alternate history science fiction novel, hence the PKD special citation. The year is 1919, and Evesden, Washington, is the center of the world, a teeming metropolis of industry thanks to the McNaughton Corporation, whose incredible inventions have staved off World War One, created fabulous airships, and changed the world forever. Only their inventions don’t seem quite earthly, and from deep below the city, the hum of immense machinery is a daily constant. Into this engaging setting comes the classic noir mystery I mentioned: a dozen union boys are found murdered in a trolley car a mere four minutes after they boarded at the previous station. Suspicion falls immediately on the McNaughton Corporation, which is trying to fend off unionization in order to keep its bottom line robust, so McNaughton calls in their company man, the drunk, opium-addicted Cyril Hayes, to find out what happened. Along with his friend, police detective Donald Garvey, and Samantha Fairbanks, the woman assigned to him by McNaughton to keep him in line, Hayes begins an investigation that takes him into the very heart of Evesden’s living history and blows apart everything he thought was true about the world in which he lives.
The big reveal behind the McNaughton Corporation probably won’t come as a surprise to savvy science fiction readers, but Bennett handles it with aplomb and, as he did with Mr. Shivers, brings the novel to a close with the perfect philosophical note. But it’s the characters even more than the plot that makes The Company Man such a great story. Hayes’s colorful history, the blossoming romance between Garvey and Samantha, the lives of the people they meet in the course of the investigation, it all comes across authentically and compellingly. Bennett is great at spinning the intimate events of his characters’ lives into enormous, earthshaking stories that explore the nature of the world around us, weaving the personal and mythic together almost seamlessly.
Robert Jackson Bennett was a writer to watch a couple of years ago. Now he’s a writer to read. So get to it. You won’t be disappointed.