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A Town Without Pity

The Chaos of Order

Toby Ball’s debut novel,The Vaults (St. Martin’s Press) is a fine first work.   Fans of crime novels and/or the suspense/thriller genre will find this an enjoyable read.   Ball is true to the convention of short chapters and brief vignettes and anecdotes that keep the reader turning to the next page.

The Vaults are essentially a record (literally a criminal record) of one city’s depravity, and when the sole archivist, Arthur Puskis, notices that something is amiss with his detailed system of categorizing the files, the reader is led along a trail of corruption that reaches to the highest level, mayor Red Henry’s office.   Set in the 1930’s, the story involves tales of big labor, organized crime, political corruption, and journalistic heroes, somewhat reminiscent of a Doctorow novel.

The story is best when it does what it purports to do:  tell an action tale.   The plot is carefully constructed, and the pace is fast.   This reviewer’s primary criticism is that it became difficult to truly care about where the story was headed because it was difficult to actually care about the characters themselves.

In the first half of the book, character after character is introduced with little development and few clues as to what makes them tick or motivates their behavior.   The character one is inclined to be most attracted to at the outset, Puskis, essentially disappears for a good portion of the first half of the book, only to reappear more prominently toward the end to help tie the story together.   Frings, the reporter, who is the closest thing to a hero this book offers, is a rather shallow fellow and not overly likeable.   In the end, Poole, the Private Investigator whose travails run parallel to Frings’ throughout the book, probably comes across as the person with the most conviction and integrity in the story.

There are a few moments where there’s an attempt at social commentary, such as when Puskis contemplates whether the improved technology introduced to the Vaults will take away a layer of humanity from the information people receive or when Puskis and Van Vossen, who has set out to write a book about the tales hidden away, contemplate the significance of the collective humanity contained in the Vaults and come to the realization that order cannot be imposed on the natural universe by man.   Generally speaking, though, there is little of this.   That type of thought and discourse is not really the point of this novel.

Overall, the writing is strong and unforced.   The reader has to occasionally suspend belief to allow for some of the events to connect, but that is why they call it fiction.   This book is recommended.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of the novel Life and Life Only.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Dirty Old Town

The Vaults by Toby Ball

If The Vaults by Toby Ball is made into a movie, it will have to be shot in black and white.   A film noir mood permeates the City, from the desolate squatter camps in abandoned factories to City Hall, where heavyweight-boxer-turned-mayor Red Henry rules with a predator’s innate understanding of his opponents’ weaknesses.   It’s big-city America in the 1930s, the heyday of the newspaper, when deeply flawed men can become heroes by exposing corruption.   That’s where we meet Francis Frings, the Gazette’s star reporter, who’s working on a story that implicates the entire criminal justice system and threatens to topple Red Henry.

The hardboiled characters who populate Frings’ world – his lover, a sultry jazz singer; his hootch-swilling editor – are richly drawn.   Frings’ investigation, alone, would make a compelling crime thriller.   But his investigation is just one of three that threaten the mayor’s kingdom, and therein lies the genius of Ball’s novel:  Three “heroes” with vastly different motivations – and no knowledge of one another – simultaneously begin tugging on the threads of the central mystery.   Ethan Poole is a private eye with socialist leanings who’s not above blackmail.   Arthur Puskis is the rigidly methodical archivist of the City’s criminal files.   Mayor Henry lashes out at all who threaten his kingdom, his brutality kept in check only by the pragmatic consideration of public relations.

Ball’s writing is fast-paced and terse.   He rotates the action from one investigation to the next, and in the process, fleshes out a world of ingenious criminality, unionizing, strike-breaking, smoky nightclubs, and insane asylums.   The characters’ quests are provocative and timeless:  Truth, Justice and The Purpose of Life.   The book’s one weakness is the implausibility of the operation that Mayor Henry kills to protect.   But The Vaults is such a good read that it hardly matters.

The Vaults (St. Martin’s Press) is Ball’s first novel.   It’s a winner, and anyone who reads it will be standing in line to get his second.

Review by Kimberly Caldwell Steffen.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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