An empty bank doesn’t sound like it holds too much thrill or excitement, but D. M. Pulley’s debut novel, “The Dead Key” shows how an empty building hides its past, corruption, and skeletons long forgotten.
It’s 1998 in Cleveland, Ohio and Iris Latch, a civil engineer, is late to her first field job. Tired of being stuck in a cubicle all day, she took on a job to survey and draw the floor plans of the abandoned First Bank of Cleveland building downtown for its next buyers. Since its closure in the late 1970s, Iris finds the building and everything inside left nearly untouched for the last nearly twenty years.
However Iris finds that someone in the past, a young secretary named Beatrice Baker, left clues about the bank’s downfall. Beatrice, who worked for the bank in 1978, got too close to the dark side of the bank, and risked her life to leave a trail for someone to discover the true dealings inside the First Bank of Cleveland. Now in 1998, Iris must piece them all together at risk of stirring up ghosts better left alone.
“The Dead Key” jumps between the late 1970s and 1990s as the two women begin their careers at the First Bank of Cleveland and their paths end up in the same place. D. M. Pulley alternates between their two narratives every few chapters and weaves them together with tiny details without ever revealing too much. Balancing two parallel times isn’t an easy feat to pull off, but Pulley does by contrasting two stories with two very different leading women. Beatrice has her resourcefulness and the underestimation of women of the 70s, and Iris has her wit and technology of the late 90s. Twenty years apart, the two women work together to solve the same mystery.
Rooted in daily life in a bank environment, “The Dead Key” isn’t the average murder-mystery, whodunit thriller that keeps readers up at night. At times Iris’s life drags a bit, and sometimes a clue takes some explaining from an alternate chapter to realize its significance. And at the end– no spoilers– Pulley adds some heavy backstory that should have been better introduced or eased into instead of dropped at the last minute. Regardless, when the final plot drops and the mystery starts to come together and secrets unravel, that’s when it all starts to make sense and kept me up at night waiting to see whodunit.
Pulley never spent too much time drawing out the inane details of certain settings, or fixated on the politics of an economic collapse. Instead Pulley focused on what needed explaining and developing for the plot, and then moved on to the story. It’s Pulley’s attention to detail and characters that make “The Dead Key” stand out and win the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. I would forget about someone mentioned by one character, then be shocked when the same name turned up in the other woman’s life. Pulley is great at hiding little details that readers might skip over on the first read through, then once the entire mystery is laid out they can go back and see “Oh, so that’s how it all fits together!”
Overall, I enjoyed “The Dead Key” enough to recommend to a friend but wouldn’t go on raving about it. It’s a good mystery with solid storytelling, and I look forward to D. M. Pulley’s future work.