Invisible Streets by Toby Ball (Overlook, July 2014)-Like your noir with a political twist? I do, and Invisible Streets, although it’s set in the turbulent 60s, it’s rather timely, which makes it even more fascinating for me. Again, it’s the 60s in the City, and this City doesn’t exist on any real map, which gives the author a certain amount of freedom with the prose, even as he sticks to familiar events and societal conventions of the time. Most readers of thrillers expect a main problem, or mystery, for a protagonist to solve, and this has one, sort of, but there are overarching events that make up the real crux of the book. The protagonist is certainly Frank Frings, an aging journalist who has been asked by his old friend and former editor, Panos Dimitropoulos, to find his grandson Sol, who is suspected of killing his own parents and hasn’t been in touch for years. Recently, however, Panos spotted Sol in an art film, and so the world of bohemian art and film is where Frank Frings starts his investigation.
Meanwhile, Nathan Canada’s New City Project has divided the city ideologically, and soon, literally. If Canada has his way, and there’s really no reason why he won’t, the mega road which will soon run straight through the city will divide the haves and have-nots in a decisive way. Homes are being taken away from their owners via shady backroom deals which are certainly more beneficial to Canada than any of the City’s denizens,, and as palms are continually greased the collective tension of the City continues to rise.
Speaking of collective… Frings’s investigation into Sol’s whereabouts seems to point at his involvement in a radical group called Kollectiv 61. Their missives are scrawled on buildings everywhere, but who are they really, and what are they planning? When a large amount of explosives are stolen from a construction site, they’re the first suspects, and crooked cop Torsten Grip is put on the case, while Canada’s crony, Phil Dorman. The theft of the explosives isn’t exactly big news. After all, it’s done frequently, and the explosives usually turn up for sale a few days later, at a premium. It’s looked at as just another cost of doing business. However, this particular batch doesn’t show up, and that’s causing the powers that be no small amount of worry.
Toby Ball had the chance to do lots of clichéd things with this one, but he didn’t. He could have made Canada’s right hand man, Dorman, fairly one dimensional and a force of, if not outright evil, certainly one of corrupt apathy. The more time spent with Dorman actually reveals a rather complicated, and very lonely man, and he soon begins to question his own motives. Frings is as honest as they come, and has been covering the plight of the City’s less fortunate for a while, but even he is shocked when he comes across evidence of drug experimentation on students by a local university that may have had crippling consequences. Even Grip, who isn’t afraid to use his fists to get his way (and sometimes worse), realizes he may be a puppet for those in power, and begins to question the morality if his actions, and of others. I love complicated characters, and Invisible Streets has them in spades. It’s not only an effective, complex thriller, but it perfectly captures the cultural upheaval of the 60s, and the author’s wry observations on human nature, and the nature of corruption, are spot on. Although this is the 3rd book in a trilogy featuring the City, and Frank Frings (The Vaults, Scorch City), it can be enjoyed on its own, but don’t hesitate to seek the other two books out. This is cerebral noir at its very best.