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.