The dazzling follow-up to Toby Ball’s acclaimed period thriller, The Vaults, takes us back to his dystopian City, fifteen years later…
Journalist Frank Frings rouses Lieutenant Piet Westermann in the middle of the night with an unusual request: move the body of a dead blonde from where she was found on the bank of a river near the utopian Uhuru Community, a Negro shantytown under threat from a deadly coalition of racists and anti-communists — and find out how the body actually got there. As the investigation deepens, complicated by a string of possibly related deaths and disappearances, and ever-more-heated racial, religious and political factors come to bear, Westermann’s rationalist worldview is challenged by the ecstatic religious experiences he encounters in the Community, led by the charismatic Father Wome. All the while, Frank Frings works to stay ahead of a more venal journalist competitor to salvage the Uhuru Community’s reputation before its enemies can achieve its final destruction.
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.”
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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
“(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.”
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