When I saw the publisher’s blurb about D.M. Pulley’s debut novel, The Dead Key, it looked like one of those creepy abandoned building mysteries that give me chills. I was absolutely right about that part but what I didn’t know was that it was inspired by Ms. Pulley having worked as an engineer on a project in a similar kind of abandoned building – a building whose mystery haunted her. All I can say is that experience must have really creeped her out because she nailed the atmosphere perfectly. The Dead Key has won Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel award not just for mysteries/thrillers but also its grand prize, so evidently I’m not the only one who thinks Ms. Pulley has written one hell of a good read! See what you think…
First Bank of Cleveland swiftly shut its doors on December 29, 1978, the very day the City of Cleveland defaulted on its loans. When that happened, rumors flowed about federal and state investigations into suspicious practices, employees who disappeared, and all kinds of speculation about what prompted the sudden closure. The bank’s investors sold the building to a real estate investment firm, glad to have the whole mess out of their hands. And then this huge bank building just sat there, looking pretty much the way it did on the day it closed, for twenty years – untouched and unoccupied. Buildings all around it were torn down and rebuilt, or refurbished and occupied, but not this building. It was almost like a large monument to how quickly things could go wrong in a bank.
Working at that bank in 1978 was sixteen-year-old Beatrice Baker, who lied about her age to get the secretarial job thanks to coaching from her Aunt Doris, who also used to work for the bank. Beatrice and a friend who works in the secretarial pool have uncovered some very odd and disturbing things about the bank in the months leading up to it closing its doors, things that have put them both into grave danger.
Iris Latch is a twenty-three-year-old engineer in 1998 who despairs that the work she’s being given at Wheeler Reese Elliot Architects is just make-work and won’t lead her anywhere. She hates her job and is chomping at the bit to get a project she can sink her teeth into. That doesn’t seem likely, however.
“It was mind-numbing, soul-crushing work, especially since she was qualified to do so much more…She’d been promised ‘cutting-edge’ structural design projects, but three months into her big engineering career, she’d been reduced to a paper-marking monkey. She’d said as much to her assigned mentor, Brad, that Monday in a fit of desperation. A day later, she was sitting in the hot seat across from Mr. Wheeler. Brad had ratted her out.”
When Iris gets called into Mr. Wheeler’s office she’s afraid she’s going to be fired, thanks to Brad’s big mouth. Instead she’s put onto a project to map out First Bank of Cleveland. It seems the bank’s plans and schematics have been lost over time. Since a real estate investment firm wants to repurpose the building, those have to be reproduced as part of a renovation feasibility study. Yay! Finally a project she can make a name for herself on, or at least one that will get her out of the office.
“’We’ve just landed a very unusual project. The partners think you might be a good fit for it. It involves fieldwork.’
Fieldwork would mean leaving her dreaded cubicle. ‘Really? That sounds interesting.’
‘Wonderful. Brad will bring you up to speed on the details. This project is of a rather sensitive nature. Our client is relying on us to keep it confidential. I really appreciate you two being willing to put in the overtime. It won’t go unnoticed.’…
Her smile had dropped at the corners. There was a catch. Brad later explained they would be working over the weekend. For free.”
When she gets to the art deco bank building, however, reality sets in. It’s a huge creepy old 15-story building that’s occupied by one lone older security guard named Ramone, who had been with the bank since before it locked its doors. And inside it looks like everyone just walked out the door one day and never came back. It looks exactly the way it did on the day the doors were locked tight, even down to the things still sitting on people’s desks, the files in the drawers, and, according to Ramone, the items being held in the safe deposit vault in the basement.
“Mosaic tiles, mahogany, and bronze – everything was shrouded in dust. The ceilings soared up fifteen feet at least, holding nothing but stale air and the faded echoes of hard-soled shoes and clacking keys. The whole place was a lost black-and-white photograph.
Iris was overwhelmed by a strange melancholy, knowing it would all be torn down if Brad has his way. They’d probably turn it into a parking lot, she thought, trying to shake the feeling she was standing in a buried tomb.”
“…she dropped her voice and asked, ’What do you mean, they drilled it open?’
‘The box,’ Ramone said in a three-pack-a-day baritone…
‘What do you mean? Don’t the people who put their stuff in there have a key?’
“Not always. Sometimes people die and no one ever finds the key. But that ain’t the problem.’ He grinned like it was an inside joke.
‘What’s the problem?’
‘Problem is, the bank fired everybody so fast when they shut down, they lost track of the master keys!’”
Now that is definitely weird but Iris has a job to do and plotting out 15 floors plus a basement or two in the time allotted means she’s got enough on her plate without thinking about the building’s oddities or how a bank could lose the master keys to its own vault boxes.
Of course, all that dedication sounds good in theory but in practice our curious brains just can’t turn that kind of weirdness loose. As Iris works on the building’s measurements, she can’t help noticing more and more things that don’t make sense. Pretty soon, she’s finding clues to what might have happened as she works despite her best intentions. And the more she uncovers the creepier just being in the building becomes.
What she doesn’t realize is that her questions and the things she’s finding will put her life in grave danger…and that’s as far as I’m going to go with this one because there are way too many spoilers if I say any more, and I’m dying to tell you more. Dammit!
As you’ve probably already guessed, although my synopsis mostly talks about 1998, this novel is written with juxtaposed chapters about people and events both in 1978 and in 1998. That juxtaposition featuring two very young women, who become obsessed and quickly find themselves out of their depth, adds to the creep factor – and kept me on my toes. I had two (actually 3) heroines to try to keep out of trouble. And all signs pointed to something horrific having happened to Beatrice and her best friend, Max, (heroine #3). Agh!
I immediately liked Beatrice although I had to warm up to Iris, who had a self-destructive element to her. They’re both real people, warts and all, who are just trying to do the best they can in an imperfect world. Neither of them has any illusions about being perfect, yet they keep plugging along and doing their jobs. And both get in way over their heads very quickly. As for the bad guys, they are nasty in an ultimate dishonest, corrupt corporate way. Think of the worst “stepping over bodies” corporate climber you’ve ever known and make them quite literally ruthless – yep, those guys.
D.M. Pulley has written an excellent debut novel in The Dead Key and I can hardly wait to see what she creates next. The characters and the situations are complex, with an attention to detail that makes them come alive. I’m pretty good at figuring out what will happen when I read most mysteries but this one kept me guessing right up to the end, both for 1978 and 1998, and that pleased me a lot. For a book I almost literally chose on a whim, this one delivered big time. There was almost a push-pull feeling to it, at least for me. I am as curious as a cat about buildings like this one but they also creep the hell out of me, and Ms. Pulley nailed that tug of war feeling. Add that it’s one hell of a good mystery/thriller on top of that, and I was stuck inside those pages until I could find out what happened. Don’t make any plans when you start The Dead Key because you’ll just have to cancel them.
Can’t wait to read it?
The Dead Key was published on March 1, 2015, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). The Kindle e-book format is a bargain at only $4.95, and you don’t need a Kindle to read it – just download the free app and read it on your phone, tablet, or computer.
I’d love to get your comments on The Dead Key, D.M. Pulley, and/or this review.
If you like this review, please contribute to our Reviewers’ Caffeine Fund in the left column. Just a cup a day, that’s all we ask.