By Toby Ball
Historical crime fiction
St. Martin's Press
Arthur Puskis has devoted his life to the Vaults, the repository of all the official records of The City at the height of its rough-and-tumble, pre-war days. The orderliness, the routine, the proven veracity of his work provides all his existence requires. Until the day he discovers a file has been duplicated.
Ethan Poole is a tough guy trying to redeem himself after a crooked career in the ring. Now a PI, he blackmails corrupt city leaders and loves a fiery union organizer.
Top newspaper reporter Francis Frings, paramour of nightclub singer extraordinaire Nora Aspen, hears from a top city leader who has had enough and is ready to sing.
This is the setup for Toby Ball's fabulous debut novel. The Vaults traces, in these three narratives, events set in motion by that duplicate file, a blackmail case and a corrupt official's decision to come clean. Combine them with a headstrong, flawed crook of a mayor and his efforts to get a group of Polish businessmen to sign a business contract, and the ensuing crosses, counter crosses, last-minute decisions and long-range plans result in an engrossing story that the original Warner Brothers should have had the chance to film in glorious black and white.
Ball keeps everything rolling in what could have been a tangled mess. Instead, the three storylines sometimes intersect, sometimes complement each other, to propel the action along. There are poignant moments and acts of great heroism, as well as sorrow and regret. To say more about actual plot points would give too much away, and each one is well worth discovering.
But suffice to say that Ball has not only a talented way with plot, but also with characterizations both starring and walk-on. The Vaults is a throwback to a time when snappy dialogue and personal stories combined to tell rich tales of winners and losers. The novel may remind readers at times of Jonathan Lethem and Loren Estleman, especially their Motherless Brooklyn, Chronic City and Gas City.
This is a rich story that has room for orphans, stone-cold killers with Achilles heels, loyal union strikers and unlikely farmers. It has the rich and the poor, the eccentric and salt of the earth. The Vaults also has the ability to turn philosophical and ask questions that go to the very heart of what each of the three protagonists holds most dear.
The only problem with finishing The Vaults is that I wish I hadn't even started it yet, so I could have the pleasure of discovering it all over again. It's that good.
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