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.