Saturday, February 25, 2017

Book Reviews: Company Man, The Long Last Call

Company Man
by Joseph Finder
This is an older thriller novel by the same author who wrote Suspicion, reviewed earlier here. The book was a little longer than Suspicion. It's around 500 pages or so.  I found the main characters in Company Man to be well detailed and realistic. There weren't many characters who seemed thrown in to make the story move, with perhaps one exception. There's a fair amount of dialog. It probably took me longer to complete this book than usual because my free time continues to diminish. I need to do something about that. Anyway this book is set in Fenwick, Michigan, a town that's a little less than halfway between Grand Rapids and Mount Pleasant. The author took the normal liberties with town size and the like. His Fenwick is a small bucolic town with one main employer. That employer is Stratton. Stratton, and the author swears that Stratton is not a stand in for Herman Miller or Steelcase, is primarily a manufacturer of office furniture. For generations Stratton has provided a middle class or better type lifestyle for hundreds, even thousands of West Michigan residents. 

Everyone in Fenwick has worked for Stratton, retired from Stratton or knows someone who has done both. As is usually the case when one company is so closely identified with a community Stratton executives have taken a paternalistic approach to their workers. Stratton rarely fired people. Resignations were rare. Workers and executives prided themselves on staying in the same job and doing quality work for decades. Stratton offered pensions, not 401K's. If you were a Stratton worker, you could hold your head up high with pride because your wallet was fat. You could provide a good life for yourself, your spouse and kids. But things change. 

The current Stratton CEO Nick Conover is facing increasing market pressures from Chinese and non-union southern competition. These days, consumers aren't necessarily willing to pay a premium for well made US furniture.  Nick has made some accommodations to business requirements by ordering layoffs, spinning off non-critical departments and considering overseas sourcing. Nick is a capitalist albeit one with a conscience. Nick has tried to cushion workers from the new market reality when he can but when push comes to shove he must place the good of the company above all else. Better to fire 2000 people and save 3000 than to lose all 5000 jobs. On some of these decisions Nick has had his hand forced by the new owner of the company, a Boston based private equity firm, managed by one Todd Muldaur.

Todd and Nick have a strong dislike for one another. Although like most people in corporate America, Todd and Nick verbalize these feelings through trite sports slogans, passive aggressive advice or silly sounding acronyms, their mutual disdain is clear. Nick hates Todd's micromanaging tendencies. Nick thought that having worked his way up to CEO he would have near total freedom of action. Todd is only concerned with the bottom line. Todd makes that abundantly clear to Nick. Todd doesn't like Nick and doesn't like Michigan, a place he thinks of as flyover country.

Because Nick has fired so many people he doesn't like going out in town any more. He's known colloquially as "Nick the Slasher". Nick receives poor service at clubs or restaurants; he wonders if people spit in his salad or drinks. The only pleasure that the widowed Nick gets is from his two kids-his sullen teenage son Lucas and happy preteen daughter Julia. But even that happiness is fleeting. Someone has been vandalizing Nick's high end home and leaving threatening graffiti. 
And the security guards and local police don't seem to be too interested in doing anything about it. Nick fired some of their loved ones, you know. But when the family dog is slaughtered Nick is frightened enough to obtain a gun from his company's security chief, Eddie Rinaldi, who happens to be a former cop and old school buddy. Shortly afterward Nick has reason to use that gun when an intruder tries to enter his home at 3 in the morning. Scared witless for his kids and for himself, Nick shoots the man twice, killing him. But unthinking, Nick shot the man outside of his house. There's no forced entry. The man was unarmed. The law views that as a crime. Castle doctrine laws probably won't apply. 

And even if they did would a local jury find "Nick the Slasher" not guilty? Panicked that he'll lose everything and go to prison Nick calls Eddie for help. When the city's sole black woman homicide detective Audrey Rhimes gets a call about a corpse discovered in a bad area of town she's determined to find out who the man was, who killed him and why. And she's going to do her job to the best of her ability despite race and gender based indifference or even hostility from her uniformly white co-workers. Audrey is a religious woman of great patience who notices things other people miss. Her greatest advantage is that people underestimate her because of her gender and race. 

Meanwhile the guilt-ridden Nick must renegotiate his relationship with a newly assertive and increasingly unpleasant Eddie, keep an eye out on Lucas, and most critically try to determine Todd's true intentions. Todd chips away at Nick's authority while assuring Nick that Todd wants him to remain as CEO.  There are some very strange things going on at Stratton which Nick can't explain. But you don't get to be or remain CEO if you can't run with the big dogs.

I enjoyed the tension being slowly ratcheted up. The author skillfully takes a character who is normally the bad guy (corporate CEO who fires thousands and has killed an unarmed man) and makes him if not sympathetic, then certainly understandable. The book is also a devastating take down of corporate cutthroat culture. Anyone who has had to work in a corporate or otherwise competitive environment will find portions of this book familiar. It's a well crafted thriller which, despite some clues being left in plain sight, will have you guessing about who did what. Along with everything thing else that's going on Nick and his children are still processing the death of Nick's wife. 
As many black people in white organizations must do Audrey must decide when to make a stand and when to let certain things go. I liked her character. Audrey has her own marital issues to confront. I appreciated the book's investigation of all of the little things we leave behind that let people know we were there in a physical or even emotional way. You don't see everyone who sees you. You may not have an idea of the impact, good or bad, that you may have on someone else's life. And you might be surprised by what a detective can do with a little evidence and a lot of deductive reasoning. What you think you see or know is not necessarily the case. This is a great mystery/thriller/corporate conspiracy story.

The Long Last Call
by John Skipp
As one half of the writing team Skipp and Spector, John Skipp was the proud perverse rebel Night King of the literary horror movement known as splatter punk. You can read other people's description of that style here if you like but the Skipp/Spector novel The Light At The End was the vampire novel that kicked it all off. It was a favorite of mine during that lost decade known as the eighties. Splatterpunk was crude, rude, sexual and violent. Skipp didn't pull many punches. And even though the imagery was often disturbing there was usually a good story underneath all of the viscera. The Light At The End was a vampire novel that took fears about AIDS, death, eros and New York night life and put it all together in a gross, scary and yet strangely life affirming story. Skipp is a man of many talents besides writing novels. He's also a musician, film maker, producer, screenwriter and editor. Skipp and Spector broke up as writing partners a long time back.  Skipp has been publishing novels infrequently. I hadn't read anything by him in a long time which is why when I ran across this 2007 novel in a used bookstore I decided to pick it up. Skipp inspired a lot of younger writers, including one Brian Keene, who writes the foreword to this novel. So I was really looking forward to enjoying this book. Unfortunately Skipp originally wrote this story as a screenplay before deciding to release it as a novel. It shows. Most of the characters are very shallow. It was hard for me to feel that they were real people.

One of the blurbs inside the book describes this as Stephen King's Needful Things meets Quentin Tarantino's From Dusk to Dawn. That was definitely the feel of the story but because all of the characters are dumb, greedy, stupid or virtual cartoons it was impossible for me to care about anything that happened to them. This might have been okay as a film where the actor can do something to give life to an interpretation but on the page everything felt flat. Hank, a suicidal trucker with mental/emotional problems feels compelled to stop in a strip club shortly before closing time. The strippers, who run the gamut from the older woman trying to keep up to the young hottie who gives "extras" to the club owner to the naive younger girl, are just about to leave. Their shifts are almost over. It's closing time. The few men in the club are sad sack losers without much money anyway. But then a dark stranger enters. This man has a briefcase full of hundred dollar bills. He gives those away like singles. And he wants to have a party. 

But Hank is seemingly the only one who sees a strange aura around the man or notices the slime this man seems to exude. And the man's money causes people's worst instincts to reveal themselves. Things proceed apace. This is not really for the light horror fan or someone who doesn't like sex or profanity mixed with their horror. And if you don't like horror at all then obviously this book is not for you. This isn't Skipp's best work. I would suggest finding The Light At The End to see the best Skipp can do.
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