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Arthur Puskis has devoted his life to the Vaults, the repository of all the official records of The City at the height of its rough-and-tumble, pre-war days. The orderliness, the routine, the proven veracity of his work provide all his existence requires. Until the day he discovers a file has been duplicated.

Ethan Poole is a tough guy trying to redeem himself after a crooked career in the ring. Now a PI, he blackmails corrupt city leaders and loves a fiery union organizer.

Top newspaper reporter Francis Frings, paramour of nightclub singer extraordinaire Nora Aspen, hears from a top city leader who has had enough and is ready to sing.

This is the setup for Toby Ball's debut novel. The Vaults traces, in these three narratives, events set in motion by that duplicate file, a blackmail case and a corrupt official's decision to come clean. Combine them with a headstrong, flawed crook of a mayor and his efforts to get a group of Polish businessmen to sign a business contract, and the ensuing crosses, counter crosses, last-minute decisions and long-range plans result in an engrossing story that the original Warner Brothers should have had the chance to film in glorious black and white.

Ball keeps everything rolling in what could have been a tangled mess. Instead, the three storylines sometimes intersect, sometimes complement each other, to propel the action along. There are poignant moments and acts of great heroism, as well as sorrow and regret. To say more about actual plot points would give too much away, and each one is well worth discovering.

But suffice to say that Ball has not only a talented way with plot, but also with characterizations both starring and walk-on. The Vaults is a throwback to a time when snappy dialogue and personal stories combined to tell rich tales of winners and losers. The novel may remind readers at times of Jonathan Lethem and Loren Estleman, especially their Motherless Brooklyn, Chronic City and Gas City.

This 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.

Hovering over Scorch City's strands of a burgeoning civil rights movement, religious leaders and police corruption is the paranoia of people scared by the idea of communism and, even worse, the idea that someone might be a Commie in secret.

And a secret is how the story begins. A blonde woman's body is found washed up on the river near the Uhuru Community, an African-American enclave of shanties set apart from the bustling city. Its leaders of a Communist faction within the community contact influential columnist Frings to contact in turn incorruptible policeman Piet Westermann to do the unthinkable. Westermann -- the true blue Loot -- agrees to move the body so attention is turned away from the community even as the investigation into the young woman's death proceeds.

In short chapters, the action moves slowly but surely forward to a fiery conclusion. Why does the religious leader of Godtown, whose residents spend every evening at church, refuse to talk to police and instead call in the big guns to stymie the investigation? Why are two more women's bodies dumped in the river? The answers reveal that sometimes there is paranoia, and sometimes people really are out to get you. But perhaps not the ones you think.

What adds another layer to Ball's writing is how easy it is to transplant his story of McCarthyism tactics to today's world of media noise machines. The demonization of groups of people who aren't like you is a handy tool for tyrants. Ball shows how easily people of good will can be drawn into bigotry, and how easily bigots can wield power.

Even characters who aren't bigots play into the way tyrants control people, as when one character early on advocates organization within the community. Providing for people and leaving "them to their own devices as long as they are free" isn't enough, the character says.

It certainly isn't enough in Scorch City, although Frings hasn't had all his optimism crushed yet. Frings asks Westermann at one point which is more important to the police, protecting one of their own or justice? "Because institutions, Piet, you start making them more important than people, that's how things get balled up." Apply that to "too big to fail".

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