If The Vaults were a movie, it would be a film noir in black-and-white, with all the men wearing fedoras and the women with pageboy hairstyles and seamed stockings and everyone smoking. Set in an unnamed American city in the 1930s, the Vaults of the title refer to the collective memory of the city. Arthur Puskis, archivist for the past 27 years, is the keeper of the files that document every court record. The certainty of this world is questioned when he discovers a duplicate file, which would be an impossibility. Puskis feels compelled to probe further and he, reporter Frank Frings, and private investigator Ethan Poole find themselves in parallel investigations of missing children, institutionalized women, and convicted criminals who never went to jail. Their questions draw the ire of the corrupt mayor and his henchmen, and Puskis fears the truth will be erased when the records from the Vaults are transcribed into a primitive computer.
The Vaults is a compelling read for the atmosphere it creates; the plot actually becomes minor compared to the dystopian world evoked. Ball creates a community of haves and have-nots, where the principled men sometimes have feet of clay and the unscrupulous men are truly evil. The women are no doormats, but they are secondary characters at best. This feels like quite the man’s world—an observation rather than a criticism. I can’t help but picture the book in cinematic form with Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark. Does that convey the hardboiled nature of this world?