The year is 1965, and the City is a hulking shell of itself. Bohemians, crooks, and snarling anti-Communists have their run of the place, but if Mr. Canada has his way, all this decline and decadence will soon be nothing but a distant memory. His New City Project will paper over the grit and the grime, making the City safe for the rich. According to him, the project the City’s last hope—but according to everyone else in town, it’s a death knell.
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Ball’s third thriller set in an unnamed American city (after 2011’s Scorch City) is his best yet. It’s 1963, and the power structure is moving ahead with a radical plan to alter the city’s geography using tax incentives to transform its center into “a single, powerful, enormous business district.” Highways will link the center with new affluent suburbs while bypassing poorer neighborhoods. With the support of businessmen and corrupt politicians, the New City Project seems unstoppable. The theft of a full trailer of explosives interjects an element of uncertainty. Against this backdrop, Panos Demitropoulis asks reporter Frank Frings, who has been waging a quixotic fight on behalf of the have-nots, to trace his missing grandson, Sol Elia, whom he hasn’t seen in two years but now has reason to hope is alive. Frings’s search for Sol intersects with a wide array of plot lines, which build to a stunning conclusion. Ball portrays the realities of graft and moral compromise in government perfectly, and slides in some insights into urban planning as well.
Contemporary Fiction Views: Life in a grey city
One of the great strengths of literary fiction is that it is able to discourse on any number of issues and philosophies. When done well, the fiction that can do that, while not broadcasting from the rooftops its frantically beating heart because it’s also telling an entertaining story, is fiction that deserves to be shouted about from great heights.
Last week’s diary on Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson is such a book. Toby Ball’s Invisible Streets is right up there as well, especially when considered with his two earlier books in the same setting.
Ball’s third novel set in a fictional City that resembles the Big Apple, Invisible Streets stands alone from The Vaults and Scorch City, and is set in another time jump from the second novel, to the 1960s. Yet it has some familiar characters and themes for readers of the first two books. (The cameos come right as they are needed for this novel and include the one most anticipated at a crucial time.)
Invisible Streets follows the paths of three men involved in different ways with a huge remodeling project in the City. The New City Project is changing the shape of town, decimating old ethnic neighborhoods, moving the haves farther away from the have-nots, and having a far greater sociological impact on the population than its creator, Nathan Canada, may have ever imagined or cared about. Canada, who resembles Robert Moses, is a take-no-prisoners urban developer with contacts above and below regular commerce and political structures.
But although the novel involves his big project, it’s not really about him. It’s about three of the men who are concerned about the development from different perspectives. Frank Frings, known to readers of Ball’s earlier novels, is back and still a left-leaning newspaper columnist. His old paper has been taken over by a Murdoch-style rag and he’s about the only reminder of the old days. He’s not given much respect there, but he still has his contacts and curiosity. So when his retired boss needs help finding his grandson, Frings agrees, and finds the college boy’s disappearance may have something to do with an LSD study at his university. There were plenty of nondisclosure agreements signed and lawyered-up or discredited professors surrounding the study.
Torsten Grip is a detective on the force, although he’s not too popular after his partner died in a shoot-out and he got away. As with most cops in the City, he’s not clean but may not be excessively dirty in comparison to others. One of the construction sites for The New City Project is missing all of its dynamite. The usual suspects are what’s left of the old Communists, Kollectiv 61, but perhaps that’s a setup by whoever really took it. In a world as noirish as this one, anything is possible.
Phil Dorman is Canada’s right-hand man. Hired right out of the Navy, he’s the guy who gets things done in the neighborhoods and with the contractors at prices that favor his boss. He’s the man who can’t be bribed. But does he realize that isn’t the same as being clean?
Although human life isn’t particularly cherished on these mean streets, one death takes the main characters by surprise and becomes a catalyst for the narratives of all three characters.
Into this mix, Ball has included many of the ideas taking shape in the 60s, especially the idea that taking LSD was supposed to expand one’s consciousness and the idea that the people need to take power and fight the man if humanity is to survive. Otherwise, we all could end up as commodities on assembly lines and be no better than bricks to be bonded together by the mortar of measly paychecks into a wall that shuts out everything that is not corrupt. Oh wait. Some of those ideas have come up again, especially in the Occupy movement.
In addition to the three main strands in the narrative, Ball has included excerpts of writing and media by Frings and others that emphasizes the idea about cities being for people or cities being for machines, about living and working spaces that can serve human needs or corporate needs. They are lightly used and could serve as writing workshop examples of how to get across a political or sociological idea in fiction without drowning the narrative in polemics.
All three of Ball’s novels set in the City have the feel and weight of a Warner Brothers noir masterpiece. There is a great word picture that would make a superb visual midway through the novel. On a large map, the areas that once were brightly colored to represent different neighborhoods are shaded grey as the New City Project takes them over. The City itself is grey, but the dark and light in this story rarely mix compatibly.
There are paranoid cops convinced that the New City Project is a cover for foreign subversives to invade the country who would be Fox News fans today. The brutality against the leftists certainly out worse after the events of Scorch City, and the resentment left years later still stains people’s views. There is little trust, and those who can give it a try may find out those on the other side may not be as different from themselves as they would like to think.
Invisible Streets works as both a thriller and as a contemplation of social philosophy in action. Taken with its older two brothers, this is fiction that can entertain as well as provide the spark of an idea or two about what’s important to us as individuals and as members of society living together in a city.
Cast of engaging characters in well-written ‘Invisible Streets’
by David Menzies
The setting of Toby Ball’s latest novel, “Invisible Streets,” is simply “the City,” and what would purported progress in any city be without a New City Project?
It’s the sixties, and politician Nathan Canada is spearheading massive development that is reshaping the City. Some poorer neighborhoods have been bought out so that they can become highways to relatively prosperous suburbs. Others are still being bought out by developers who’ll gain enormously by owning property in what will essentially be the New City. There doesn’t seem to be anything that can change that. But from the bohemians at the college to the local brass, power plays are amidst.
The specter of supposed anarchists is about to loom over the City, and veteran reporter Frank Frings is about to find himself in reach of a maelstrom, while a detective by the name of Torsten Grip bullheads his way to the center of it.
These men are on different ends of the political spectrum — Frings, a longtime advocate of a city less tailored to wealth; and Grip, a hater of “commies” who at his best is still a gray character. But within the novel, both find that there are limits to how much they think others should be disregarded in favor of their own philosophies. That seems rare these days in popular culture.
There’s a plethora of characters in “Invisible Streets,” and it’s rare that they’re not engaging. Ball’s prose manages a striking balance between skillful wordplay and efficient storytelling. His novel is also bursting with a sense of creativity that might be overlooked because of how fitting everything seems for the world he’s fashioned.
The City’s landscape is an interesting presence in the novel unto itself. For a place that in many ways represents any great American city, this iteration has nothing like a Harlem, nothing like a South Side. The neighborhoods being displaced are mostly comprised of Eastern European immigrants, which would probably be post some sort of redlining.
Sometimes the City seems more like Gotham City — Gotham being a metropolis that’s often more atmosphere than texture — but ultimately it surpasses that impression. Late in “Invisible Streets,” a friend of Frings’ points out that, as much as Frings holds onto the idea that the City shouldn’t bulldoze away those with little to no wealth, there’s a lack of African-Americans in their neighborhood, among others. People who used to have some presence there. The City had already changed in ways that Frings couldn’t see.
“Invisible Streets” features an intricate yarn, well-told, and then some.
Though it’s the first entry I’ve read, “Invisible Streets” is the third in Ball’s series on the City.
I don’t usually read noir, but I’d heard a lot of good things about New Hampshire author Toby Ball’s dystopian crime novels. The latest, Invisible Streets, is set in the mid-1960s. Ball’s imagined city is grim, ripe for planner Nathan Canada’s New City Project, which will tear down decaying neighborhoods to create a massive business zone and Crosstown Expressway. A truckload of dynamite is missing from one of the project’s construction sites. Detective Torsten Grip, journalist Frank Frings and Canada’s right-hand man, Phil Dorman, all want to know who took it and why. Frings is also looking for a friend’s grandson, Sol Elia, who was a subject in secret hallucinogen studies as a student and may be part of a shadowy radical group, Kollectiv 61. Both a mystery and an examination of power and influence, Invisible Streets is an atmospheric, slow-burning book that illuminates the dehumanizing effects of uncompromising ideology and corruption. Frings is a thinking man’s hero whose patience pays, even when he wonders, “whether there was anyone left on his side – and what that side even was.”
Grip and Dorman are less admirable, but in Ball’s capable hands, they’re sympathetic characters. He takes you inside these men’s minds, out into the streets, and up on the girders of the City. If you’re looking for a smart, provocative crime novel, try Invisible Streets.
“Invisible Streets” Densely Plotted and Moving
by Nelson Appell
Toby Ball’s gripping third novel, “Invisible Streets,” features not one but three interlocking investigations. Set in an unnamed city in the 1960’s, the main mystery kicks off when a large supply of demolition explosives is stolen and the three security guards on duty go missing.
The theft threatens the controversial New City Project, a plan to build highways that link the center of the city with the suburbs. The project is held together with bribes and double-dealing. The big question with the explosives is why they haven’t been re-sold back to the New City Project.
Detective Torsten Grip searches for the missing guards to find what happened to the explosives. Legendary reporter Frank Frings searches for his friend’s missing grandson, only to find his quest intersecting with the missing explosives. And Phil Doman, who takes care of the mayor’s dirty work overseeing the New City Project, tracks the progress of anything that might affect the project – such as missing explosives.
As they ask questions, the three men gradually unearth some big and troubling secrets. Through their questions, Ball gradually reveals the real politics that run the city.
The fourth main character is the city itself, anonymous but recognizably American. Sprawling, gritty, corrupt, nearly ungovernable, the city needs firm hands to guide it.
“Take a look at the size of this place,” says one character. “They say the cop’s job is to protect, but it’s to control, at least here.” The city pulses with danger. Ball makes you feel the grime and dirt as the men crisscross the city looking for answers.
He writes in short, rhythmic chapters that keep the densely plotted story moving. Beyond the tense storytelling lurk bigger questions. Is the city structured for people or for automobiles? What produces the feelings of alienation in the citizenry? What are acceptable uses of power in trying to govern such a metropolis? Fans of thrillers that wrestle with larger questions will be enthralled.