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Monday, October 24, 2011

Review: 'Scorch City'

By Toby Ball
September 2011
St Martins
ISBN: 978-0312580834

Fifteen years after the events in The Vaults, Toby Ball's brilliant noirish debut, his Scorch City follow-up takes an even darker turn. War veterans have returned, broken in spirit and body, while a more menacing threat worries some. A Red menace, that is.

Hovering over Scorch City's strands of a burgeoning civil rights movement, religious leaders and police corruption is the paranoia of people scared by the idea of communism and, even worse, the idea that someone might be a Commie in secret.

And a secret is how the story begins. A blonde woman's body is found washed up on the river near the Uhuru Community, an African-American enclave of shanties set apart from the bustling city. Its leaders of a Communist faction within the community contact influential columnist Frank Frings to contact in turn incorruptible policeman Piet Westermann to do the unthinkable. Westermann -- the true blue Lieut -- agrees to move the body so attention is turned away from the community even as the investigation into the young woman's death proceeds.

In short chapters, the action moves slowly but surely forward to a fiery conclusion. Why does the religious leader of Godtown, whose residents spend every evening at church, refuse to talk to police and call in the big guns to stymie the investigation? Why are two more women's bodies dumped in the river? The answers reveal that sometimes there is paranoia, and sometimes people really are out to get you. But perhaps not the ones you think.

What adds another layer to Ball's writing is how easy it is to transplant his story of McCarthyism tactics to today's world of media noise machines. The demonization of groups of people who aren't like you is a handy tool for tyrants. Ball shows how easily people of good will can be drawn into bigotry, and how easily bigots can wield power.

Even characters who aren't bigots play into the way tyrants control people, as when one character early on advocates organization within the community. Providing for people and leaving "them to their own devices as long as they are free" isn't enough, the character says. It certainly isn't enough in Scorch City, although Frings, who was introduced in The Vaults, hasn't had all his optimism crushed yet. Frings asks Westermann at one point which is more important to the police, protecting one of their own or justice? "Because institutions, Piet, you start making them more important than people, that's how things get balled up." Apply that to "too big to fail".

Ball combines such real world, contemporary connections with a writing style steeped in noir. The novel unfolds in the imagination like a black-and-white Warner Brothers classic. The noir fate for certain characters is inevitable and fascinating. The seamless weaving of point of view, character, story and style found in Ball's writing is fiction writing at its best.

©2011 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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