May 26, 2005

BOOKS: Company Man, Joseph Finder (2005)

Nick Conover is the CEO of Stratton Furniture, and until recently, he was a hero in his small town. But he's had to lay off thousands of people in the last year, and now he's known as "The Slasher." Everyone in town is either an ex-employee or related to one, and now there's a stalker menacing his family. Nick decides to take action against his stalker, which leads to a murder; to top things off, Nick then begins a romantic relationship with the dead man's daugher.

Now, this is not the most obviously sympathetic protagonist in the world -- a corporate CEO responsible for crippling the economy of his home town and murdering one of his ex-employees -- and if nothing else, Company Man is fascinating as a technical exercise. How does Finder not only keep us from hating Nick, but actually have us rooting for him to get away with his crime?

He starts by stacking the deck in Nick's favor, making him extremely sympathetic or victimized in every other area of his life. He's recently widowed; his teenage son is an increasingly hostile drug user; his subordinates are conspiring to take Stratton Furniture away from him.

Next, he introduces Eddie, Stratton's head of security, who helps Nick cover up the crime, then goes slowly wacko on Nick, getting more and more paranoid at every turn; as Eddie gets more and more desperate and vicious, Nick seems reasonable by comparison.

Finally, he has Nick wallow in guilt, constantly torn between not wanting to be caught and his newfound desire to do the right thing. (A shame he hadn't thought of doing the right thing before he pulled the trigger.)

If you're not bothered by the idea of a novel in which the killer is the hero, this one is solidly constructed and nicely written. The chief detective on the case is a nicely drawn character, and the relationship between Nick and his son is convincing. The identity of the ultimate villain is a bit too easy to figure out, but Finder keeps the story zipping along. He's a solid writer -- I enjoyed his previous novel, Paranoia, very much -- but Nick's a bit too anti an anti-hero for my tastes.

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