What They’re Saying
SCORCH CITY and THE VAULTS
“(The Vaults) 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 Vaults is one of those novels that are excellent examples to use when people argue about so-called genre fiction vs. literary fiction. This novel uses the tropes of genre fiction, but it’s literary in its construction and layers of what the characters are really saying and standing for in the course of the machinations. There is a progressive, reforming sensibility to the novel. This is even more true of the sequel.
“Fifteen years after the events in The Vaults, 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.”
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. – Lynn Harnett
“Set in 1950 in the unrelentingly grim metropolis known only as the City, Ball’s worthy follow-up to The Vaults presents Lt. Piet Westermann, an honest police officer, with an awkward moral choice. . . Ball deftly blends the corrupt politics of the City with Westermann’s efforts to solve the murder and preserve his own secrets.”
Ball’s riveting debut, The Vaults (2010), was set in the 1930s in an alternate, dystopian version of America. This sequel, which also features newspaper reporter Frank Frings, takes place about 15 years later. The body of a white woman is found near the Uhuru Community, a peaceful black settlement. Frings receives an unusual request: use his influence with the police to have the body moved to a less politically awkward location (while making sure to find out who’s responsible for the murder). Soon another murder—this one less easy to relocate to a more desirable place—has Frank wondering just what interest the controversial Church of Last Days might have in throwing suspicion on the Uhuru Community. Ball does a very nice job of transferring some of the key social elements of the 1950s—racial unrest and the Communist witch hunts—to his alternate-history U.S. and then expanding on them. A treat for fans of noir and science fiction—and pretty much anyone in between. — David Pitt
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Set in an unnamed U.S. big city in 1935, Ball’s impressive thriller debut opens with a vivid description of “the Vaults,” where archivist Arthur Puskis has worked for almost three decades. He’s the only person who understands the system of filing criminal cases in the vast underground storage facility in the subbasement of city hall. When Puskis, amid the drudgery of his lonely job, discovers two files with the same alphanumeric identifier but with different contents, the implications threaten the foundations of the massively corrupt municipal government headed by Mayor Red Henry. In particular, the find raises questions about why a number of convicted killers were never actually incarcerated. The archivist’s dogged legwork coincides with a series of bombings aimed at close allies of the mayor, and the plot steamrolls to a dramatic conclusion. Ball’s “City,” in which despair and graft are almost palpable, is an imaginative achievement on a par with Loren Estleman’s Gas City. ”
Mystery Scene Magazine
“I say this with great respect, as I revere the work of the legendary comic artist Will Eisner: The Vaults feels like a novel adaptation of one of Eisner’s classic Spirit comics.
“Astonishingly, Toby Ball is a first-time novelist. The Vaults succeeds on every level, in its language, plotting, and ability to enthrall readers.”
Library Journal (Starred review)
Though clad in convincing period detail, Ball’s atmospheric debut thriller is a story for the ages. Deep in the underground Vaults, where “The City” keeps criminal records, devoted but isolated city archivist Arthur Puskis discovers something that shouldn’t exist: a duplicate copy of one man’s file, identical except for the picture. So begins a story of dark doings at high levels. Puskis and two other unlikely heroes, the migraine-riddled investigative reporter Frank Frings and sleazy but staunch private detective Ethan Poole, each try to topple the regime of prizefighter-turned-mayor Red Henry and his creepy cronies. Ball creates a vivid supporting cast of thuggish police, union organizers, jazz musicians, and bomb-heaving anarchists, wraps them in haunted nighttime settings, and sustains the suspense in short, well-paced chapters.
Verdict Cleverly couching contemporary themes—big business’s corrupt intervention in government, the threat to individual identity, and the distortion of information during technological “updates”—in spooky, lush historical trappings, this convincing novel will heighten readers’ senses, engage their minds, and satisfy their craving for exciting stories. —Neil Hollands, Williamsburg Regional Lib., VA
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. – Lynn Harnett
“The Vaults, Toby Ball: well now! this one impressed me a lot, and i don’t typically read mysteries. i am such a speed reader and such a mystery naïf that i almost never see it (whatever it is) coming, so i won’t comment on the mystery itself. what i loved most about this book was that the plot revolved around one incredibly unlikely hero, an archivist named Puskis, who is more obsessed with patterns and information than with justice. the other characters, mostly rough-and-ready types, have their moments, but it was Puskis who stole the show for me. and the ending! very nice, very nice indeed. gritty, noir, but with nice touches of humanity.”
Jenn Northington, jennIRL.com
The Vaults is not strictly speaking science fiction, but the strong dystopian elements contained in the plot and the fact that it reads like a hardboiled crime novel definitely make it a genre novel. In fact, the clever mix of these two themes (dystopian and noir) make for a refreshing and original tale that slowly builds to its climax as the three main characters’ respective investigation collide to become pieces of one big puzzle.
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 Vaults – like a dark dream you can’t shake off upon waking — is stunning. With a Kafka-esque view filtered through a Jasper Fforde lens, Toby Ball gives us the gray terror of Any City in Any Unnamed Year that could reach from 1930 to today, and reminds us, once again, of the importance of vigilance and the danger of Big Boss rule.
Louise Ure, Shamus Award-winning author of Liars Anonymous
“The Vaults is pure class. Toby Ball has conjured a fully-evoked world in his nameless city that, for all its 1930s trappings, retains that surreal and timeless atmosphere of Gotham, Brave New World, and 1984. Behind the many thrills loom the larger targets of Mr. Ball’s novel—the archiving of human depravity in the information age and the legacy of crime in the collective consciousness. A provocative and dazzling debut.”
Blake Crouch, author of Abandon.
“Toby Ball’s imagined city is a fever dream in which virtue barely survives the corruption all around it… This reader couldn’t get enough.”
Justin Evans, author of A Good and Happy Child.
“If George Orwell and Dashiell Hammett had ever decided to collaborate on a book, they might have come up with something like The Vaults. Toby Ball’s novel is superbly plotted, stylishly written and entirely unique. A wonderful debut from a writer to watch.”
Michael Harvey, author of The Fifth Floor.