Scorch City has received two great reviews recently, pasted below.
When they accept the midnight request to move the body of an emaciated blonde from the riverbank near the Uhuru Community, journeyman reporter Frank Frings and analytical police lieutenant Piet Westermann put themselves in the middle of a tense clash between violent racists and the residents of the utopian black shantytown. Their investigation escalates as more bodies are found and a showdown looms between two charismatic religious leaders, each backed by political powers and dangerous enforcers. In terse, suspenseful chapters, the narration alternates among Frings, Westermann, a cop named Grip who moonlights as an anti-Communist enforcer, and slide guitarist Moses Winston.
Verdict Setting his second period dystopian thriller in the same unnamed city, 15 years after the events of The Vaults, Ball shows he is a master at creating hallucinatory noir atmosphere, developing morally complex characters, and treating contemporary issues in a smart retro-setting (the 1950s). Fans of writers like Caleb Carr, James Ellroy, and E.L. Doctorow need to give Ball a try.—Neil Hollands, Williamsburg Regional Lib., VA
Durham author Ball’s second novel takes place in 1950, 15 years after his first, “The Vaults” (reviewed below). While the two share a setting — Ball’s unnamed dystopian City and a protagonist, newspaper columnist Frank Frings — it is not necessary to have read the first, as Ball barely references the events from the first novel.
The City, despite its pulsing music scene, remains a hard-bitten place, although the gangland-style mayor is long gone and the current mayor is a decent guy in a tough race for re-election against a rabid anti-communist rabble-rouser. Frings is the voice of reason in a crumbling metropolis filled with anger and willful ignorance.
One night Frings is called upon to help the leaders of a black shantytown community to move the body of a white girl from the riverbank outside their walls. The leaders — avowed communists — fear the mob violence a murdered white girl could bring them and Frings concurs. He calls in a big marker from police lieutenant Piet Westermann and gets it done.
The plan here is that the police will investigate the death while keeping the Uhuru Community out of it. But one of Westermann’s detectives, Grip, eyeing the river currents and the location of the body, is suspicious from the start. Though uneducated Grip is smart and fiercely anti-Red.
Then two more dead girls show up on the riverbank outside the Community. All three of them, in addition to having been murdered, are emaciated and covered with sores, autopsies showing some strange, scary disease.
Ball draws his City and characters in bold, broad strokes to start, filling in details and nuance as the story grows more complex. While the Uhuru Community emerges as a loose-knit group encompassing voodoo, militancy, poverty and family, the murder investigation pushes tentacles into prostitution, a cultish church, redbaiting and long-buried secrets.
Ball gives us a fresh take on stylish noir.
The Herald website also had a review (also by Lynn Harnett) of The Vaults that I had not seen before:
Ball’s first novel, set in 1935, grabs the reader with its opening image: the Vaults, a quiet, cavernous dim repository of files. Rows of shelves stretch into the gloom, each holding meticulously organized and cross-referenced files that date back 70 years into the City’s criminal past.
All of it presided over by one man, hermet-like, skeletal Arthur Puskis, whose idea of hell is a week off. Which is what he gets when he finds a duplicate file — a murderer’s file with notes in different-colored ink, and a different man’s picture in it, and no indication of any prison term — and brings the file to his chief’s attention. The chief assumes it’s a simple error and eyes Puskis’ agitation with concern, insisting he take a week off.
Naturally Puskis is unable to leave this mystery alone and finds the scary break in his routine leading him in unexpected directions.
Meanwhile, above the musty Vaults, the City teems with crime and corruption, led by the most corrupt administration in its history. Frank Frings, investigative journalist and columnist, is collecting dangerous inside information to try and bring the mayor down. And Ethan Poole, union organizer, socialist and private eye is more than willing to twist arms — or resort to blackmail — to get what he wants for the union. But then an odd, sad woman asks him to find her missing boy and Poole takes a turn into a different dark chapter of his City’s history.
All three men converge on the ugly truth separately and sometimes at cross-purposes. Ball captures the feel of a dystopian 30s as he follows his flawed and dogged characters through a minefield of dangerous secrets and betrayals.
An outstanding debut.