“The Dead Key” Unlocking Cleveland’s Hidden History
Written by Ayanna Cash // Illustrated by Megan Mullaly
D. M. Pulley’s fiction novel gives readers a new perspective on a historical building on Euclid Ave.
D. M. Pulley is a Northeast Ohio native who started her career as an engineer. She would survey and rehab historical buildings in the Cleveland area but, after having two children, Pulley decided to put her engineering career on hold to be a stay-at-home mom, but she quickly grew restless and decided to try her hand at writing.
Inspired by a survey she did years prior of a vacant bank, Pulley was entranced by a rumor that the bank was full of unclaimed safe deposit boxes. This specific surveying job followed her for years and eventually served as the basis for her first novel, “The Dead Key.”
“The Dead Key” unravels the mystery of a bank right on Euclid Ave -- 1010 Euclid Ave. to be exact. This is the present location of apartments, office spaces, the Downtown Heinen’s grocery store and the Vault which is an underground bar that occupies the original restored vaults of the bank.
The novel begins in 1978 with 16-year-old Beatrice Baker. Once hired at the First Bank of Cleveland, the crime and drama within the bank slowly begins to reveal itself to Baker. As the scandal comes to a head, the doors to the First Bank of Cleveland are chained shut in the middle of the night -- sealing in and preserving the bank’s history and its scandal behind the doors.
Twenty years later, in 1998, Iris Latch, a 23-year-old Case Western Reserve University engineering graduate, struggled to balance adult life and begin her engineering career. She’s assigned to do a renovation feasibility study of the First Bank of Cleveland. While surveying, Latch unlocks the mystery of the bank that has been perfectly frozen in time.
As the story jumps between time periods, the mysteries behind the bank are slowly pieced together through the experiences of Baker in 1978 and Latch in 1998. Together, the two women uncover the same scandal involving missing safe deposit boxes, workplace love affairs, a city caving under debts and key No. 547.
After a troubled relationship with her mother, Baker moves in with her no-nonsense aunt Dorris. Despite being only 16, Dorris forages Baker a birth certificate and she’s hired at the bank. This is where Baker meets her colleague and friend, Maxine McDonnell, a.k.a Max. McDonnell shows Baker the ropes and the pair quickly grow close.
“The Dead Key” unravels the mystery of a bank right on Euclid Ave -- 1010 Euclid Ave. to be exact.
Baker’s first glance at the bank’s dark side is when she learns of the undocumented repossession of safe deposit boxes. One woman came into the bank to make a payment on her box, only to learn that it had been repossessed. The woman was outraged because she never received any notices from the bank and threatened legal action. As a result, McDonnell’s boss assigns her the secret project of requesting audits on the boxes, finding ones that haven’t been paid on, and checking that against the bank’s records.
When Baker’s aunt Dorris falls into an unexplained coma, she further learns just how shady - and dangerous - the First Bank of Cleveland is. Baker finds hidden love letters, First Bank of Cleveland repossession documents, and a mystery key No. 547 in her aunt’s belongings and learns that her aunt had previously worked at the bank herself.
Baker then finds out that she doesn’t truly know McDonnell either when she realizes that she stole her aunt’s mystery deposit box key No. 547 and then goes missing. Once McDonnell goes missing, tensions at the bank rise. Baker follows the shorthand clues left by McDonnell and learns that hundreds of safe deposit boxes hadn’t been repossessed but their valuable contents had been stolen.
This discovery puts Baker and McDonnell’s lives in danger as they unravel the illegal activity that is benefitting the most prestigious - and dangerous - families in Cleveland.
Twenty years later, while surveying the abandoned bank, Latch finds the vault with hundreds of locked safe deposit boxes containing the most valuable possessions of citizens who are now, either, very old or have since passed away. Latch’s curiosity is piqued. What is inside these boxes? Who do they belong to? Why were they left unclaimed and unopened?
As she gathers measurements of the bank, Latch finds more than she intended. Forgotten files, locked rooms, and mystery bank keys only make her more invested in the bank’s past. She learns of Baker and McDonnell through their abandoned files and finds the same deposit box key No. 547 that put the duo in so much danger twenty years prior. Unaware of the key’s past, Latch is determined to return the key to its rightful owner with the innocent hope that they can reclaim their valuables.
But as Latch digs deeper to uncover the past, she stumbles into the same danger that Baker and McDonnell faced. She hears voices, sees shadows and feels an ominous presence as she wanders through the bank. Sleepless nights, intense hangovers, a complicated love life and her taxing job only add to Latch’s stress and increases her paranoia.
Eventually, Latch’s snooping leads her to a discovery so horrifying it forces the police to investigate the bank’s dark past after decades of neglect. The bank’s malicious operations continued well beyond the bank’s closure.
As the chapters alternate between the two time periods, it’s fascinating to see the same mystery being solved, piece-by-piece, through two different viewpoints. The story gradually unravels the bank’s sinister workings in a way that builds and held my attention. Despite being twenty years apart, Baker and Latch share a lot of similarities beyond the First Bank of Cleveland. The women form relationships and cross paths with the same people. The women share similar experiences that allow each of their discoveries to build off of one another as they’re presented. Pulley does a beautiful job of intricately tying the two women’s lives together.
Although some of the supporting characters fell short, the two main characters had a deep depth that expanded beyond their connection to the bank. They lived realistic lives and endured genuine problems that made them more interesting and relatable. You witness Baker grows from a timid teenager to an independent, quick-witted young lady. And Latch matures from being lost and negligent to being mature and resilient. I found myself fully invested in Iris and Beatrice and their real-ness.
Unfortunately, the complex plot became extremely tangled towards the end. It felt like plot twist after plot twist was being introduced extremely quickly which strayed the plot from the central storyline while leaving many key questions unanswered. The final fate of the main characters wasn’t very clear as well. My only wish for this story is that it had a more satisfying and intelligible ending.
Nonetheless, Pulley’s “The Dead Key” is an extraordinary story that excellently joins mystery, suspense and danger that is set in our very city. Pulley’s use of Cleveland landmarks makes the book particularly enjoyable to natives who can accurately visualize - or even visit - the setting of the story. Pulley was supposed to visit Cleveland State University’s library on April 22nd, but, sadly, that visit has since been canceled due to COVID-19.