Andrew Vachss 1942–
American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Vachss's work through 1997.
Drawing upon more than twenty years of experience in the field of child welfare, Vachss (pronounced "vax") writes novels that address the issues of child abuse and exploitation. Most of these novels revolve around the character known only as Burke, a self-styled private investigator who employs violence when dealing with "freaks"—people who perpetrate crimes against children.
Born in 1942, Vachss grew up on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. After graduating from Western Reserve University in 1965, he held a series of public service positions with organizations such as the U.S. Public Health Service in Ohio, the Department of Social Services in New York City, and the Medfield-Norfolk Prison Project in Massachusetts. In 1972, he became director of ANDROS II, a maximum-security juvenile facility near Boston. During this time, Vachss resumed his education, earning his J.D. from the New England School of Law in 1975. In 1976, Vachss established his juvenile-defense law practice, devoting his time exclusively to child welfare issues. Because the children he defends lack the resources to pay him, Vachss began writing fiction to supplement his income. In 1983, Vachss started writing bits of plot, dialogue, and character sketches on index cards, collecting them in a box; the result was his first novel, Flood (1985). In addition to numerous "Burke" novels, Vachss has produced a collection of essays and prose poems and has worked with Dark Horse comics to produce graphic adaptations of his short stories. Vachss also maintains a homepage on the World Wide Web, entitled "The Zero," containing information and resources on his work and the topics covered in his novels (see www.vachss.com). Vachss and his wife, Alice, also an attorney, live in New York.
Though he had published The Life-Style Violent Juvenile: The Secure Treatment Approach (1979) six years earlier, Vachss first drew critical attention with the publication of Flood, the novel that introduces his favorite protagonist, Burke. Rather than subscribe to the standard conventions of the detective novel protagonist, Vachss has created in Burke the atypical hero, described by David Morrell as "a con-man, a survivor, a cynic, a repressed romantic and a very dangerous guy." Burke is an ex-convict who makes his living selling fake identification, doing "dirty work" for wealthy clients, and, on occasion, serving as a private investigator on cases dealing with the abuse and exploitation of children. The perpetrators of these crimes against children usually meet with a violent end, courtesy of Burke. Some critics have argued that Burke's vigilante justice is a form of "wish fulfillment" for Vachss, allowing him to achieve retribution that is unavailable through legal means. To this Vachss has responded, "I've never considered that…. I've tried to keep my books tight within the realm of what actually can happen."
Vachss's novels have met with popular appeal, but critical reviews of his work are mixed. David Morrell of the Washington Post praises Vachss's style, saying that "the words leap off the page …, and the style is as clean as haiku." Others have credited him for the creation of an original protagonist and an intriguing supporting cast. Some reviewers, however, have criticized Vachss for redundant plot elements and a lack of character development through the course of the Burke series. The harshest criticism of his work has come from those who claim that Vachss himself is guilty of exploiting children by making them the focus of his novels. To these critics, Vachss has responded, "I'm curious to know how you could bring about social change without acknowledging the existence of that you wish to change."
The Life-Style Violent Juvenile: The Secure Treatment Approach (nonfiction) 1979
Flood (novel) 1985
Strega (novel) 1987
Blue Belle (novel) 1988
Hard Candy (novel) 1989
Blossom (novel) 1990
Sacrifice (novel) 1991
Hard Looks (graphic novel series) 1992
Another Chance to Get It Right (essays) 1993
Shella (novel) 1993
Down in the Zero (novel) 1994
Batman: The Ultimate Evil (novel) 1995
Footsteps of the Hawk (novel) 1995
False Allegations (novel) 1996
(The entire section is 55 words.)
SOURCE: "Down and Dirty," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XV, No. 37, September 15, 1985, p. 6.
[In the following review. Dirda provides a brief overview of Flood.]
Andrew H. Vachss has written quite an extraordinary thriller in Flood. Imagine a New York where the streets are worse than mean, they're positively depraved. The hero Burke is a private detective (sort of) with an engineer's approach to survival. He lives with a huge mongrel named Pansy in an apartment fortified like a bank vault; he drives a $40,000 Plymouth loaded with more gadgetry than James Bond's Aston Martin. His friends include a transvestite prostitute, a mute Tibetan fighting machine named Max, a panhandler called the Prof (short for Professor or Prophet, no one's sure which), an electronic wizard who lives underground beneath a pile of junked cars, and a doctor who doubles as the secret leader of an Hispanic revolutionary group.
In his first case, Burke takes on a client named Flood, a martial arts expert, searching for the man who raped and killed a little girl. Together they make quite a team, something like Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin in a novel by Celine. For this is a very violent book, and Vachss never flinches from the horror: he includes a sickening description of a snuff movie, chilling (yet comic) portraits of would-be soldiers of fortune, and a convincing look at the underworld of child...
(The entire section is 466 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Strega, in The New York Times Book Review, May 31, 1987, p. 45.
[In the following brief review, Callendar calls Strega "unbelievable and slick, but fun."]
Want a tough New York crime novel? Try Strega by Andrew Vachss. It features Burke, a private investigator, a former convict, a man who gets things done and never mind the letter of the law. In Strega (meaning "witch" in Italian) Burke is hired by a woman to find a pornographic photo of a boy. He was forced into sex acts by a pornographic ring and is now all but a mental case. The woman—the Strega of the story—thinks if she tears up the photo in front of the boy, all will be well. His anxieties will go away.
In this book New York is a jungle, and Burke is a very big cat prowling at night. He has some friends to help him, notably a lethal Oriental instrument named Max, who is to Burke what Hawk is to Spenser in the Robert Parker series. When Burke and Max swing into action, they are fearful to behold. They make Mickey Spillane's exploits read like the minutes of a Harvard alumni meeting, class of 1920. Strega is unbelievable and slick, but fun.
(The entire section is 209 words.)
SOURCE: "Burke's Law: A Vivid Quest for Vengeance," in Tribune Books, September 4, 1988, p. 5.
[In the following review, Brashler provides a brief summary of Blue Belle.]
A sleuth who lives not just on society's edge, but on its underbelly. An Amazon of a heroine whose thoughts never assume the proportions of her body. A city full of mercenaries, psychopaths and deviates. An unsmiling author with an open collar and an eye patch.
Such is Blue Belle, the third episode in the sullen existence of Burke, the outlaw private eye created by Andrew Vachss. It is a book so ferocious, with characters so venal and action so breakneck, that you dare not get in the way.
Burke, just Burke, is an ex-con, no-b.s. operative who pretty much detests the small stuff of life. Things such as taxes, Social Security numbers, driver's licenses and bills. He avoids most of them and doesn't even own a telephone—you want him, you call Mama Wong's Chinese restaurant and Burke just might call back.
His friends are similarly shadowy. Max is a martial arts expert. Mole is a mechanic who can rig any device. Prof is a hustler. Michele is a pre-op transsexual. Pansy, Burke's dog, is a lethal mastiff who lays down when Burke says, "Jump."
Life is this way, the premise holds, in order for Burke to get things done. He only takes on a gumshoe job, however, for big...
(The entire section is 514 words.)
SOURCE: "Lord of the Asphalt Jungle," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XVIII, No. 36, September 4, 1988, p. 7.
[In the following review, Nicholson compliments Vachss for the entertainment value his work provides, but criticizes him for a lack of character development and utilizing formulaic plots.]
Reading Andrew Vachss is a sordid pleasure, like eating a tub of greasy, buttered popcorn while watching a double feature of kung-fu movies. Afterwards, bloated and bleary-eyed, most adults of reasonable intelligence will feel a little guilty at having wasted so much time, for Vachss' novels—Flood, Strega, and his latest, Blue Belle—are examples of the novel as comic book, the novel as television. Taken together, they remind one of the comment made by the producer of a television action show starring Lee Majors. During a story conference, a new writer asked about the motivation of the character Majors played.
"Motivation?" said the producer. "What motivation? The show's about a 14-year-old kid and his two buddies who are 13 and how they all go about having adventures." Which just about sums it up. Consider the following:
Vachss' hero, Burke, is an ex-con with a soft spot for abused children. He lives with a large and dangerous dog named Pansy. Unlike most New Yorkers, the two live rent-free (Burke once "did a favor" for the landlord), in rooms...
(The entire section is 1193 words.)
SOURCE: "On the Subject of Child Abuse, Andrew Vachss is One Tough Lawyer Plus One Tough Author," in People Weekly, Vol. 30, No. 12, September, 1988, pp. 78-80.
[In the following essay, Abrahams provides a brief biographical profile of Vachss.]
Max grabbed the freak's fingertips, stretching the hand out for me. I raised the butcher knife high above my head …
The man with the knife is a private eye known only as Burke. He is a fictional character, but his feelings about child molesters—freaks, as he calls them—are real. They are the feelings of his creator, Andrew Vachss.
A Manhattan attorney who represents victims of child abuse, Vachss (rhymes with "fox") has worked 13 years in an insidious world where kids are bought and sold as objects of desire. He has also sued groups like the venerable Fresh Air Fund, which, he charged, had unwittingly sent some children to homes where they were abused. These experiences have left him with plenty to say about this shame of our society, and he says it in detective novels.
"I get incest cases, kiddie porn and torture of one kind or another. I get cases from doctors or psychiatrists," says Vachss, 45. "Perpetrators call looking for me to defend them because I'd be good. And I would be. I just won't. I've turned people down who then say, 'Well, how much do you want?'...
(The entire section is 1290 words.)
SOURCE: "Righteous Brother," in Village Voice, Vol. XXXIII, No. 48, November 29, 1988, p. 66.
[In the following review, Gehr criticizes Vachss for "redundancy, if not hypocrisy."]
Having now struck thrice, it's time for popular and once-promising crimester Andrew Vachss to be called out on grounds of redundancy, if not hypocrisy. In Blue Belle, the most recent in his series of novels featuring Burke, a stonehard sociopath, Vachss lazily follows the pattern familiar to readers of his Flood and Strega.
In all three books the titular women enlist this quintessential underground man to seek out and destroy various "freaks" involved in some form of child abuse. Burke gladly complies, using prison-yard instincts, con games, survivalist wiles, justified violence ("'Damn their souls to hell.' 'I don't do souls,'" Burke replies, "'Just bodies'"), and his ongoing retinue of post-Runyon cohorts. These include a goldenhearted former hooker saving up for a sex change, an inscrutable deaf-mute martial-arts expert, and a Puerto Rican liberation group. Along the way, he gets it on with the invariably strong-willed title character, and in Blue Belle, this is where my Vachss problem begins.
The novel opens with Burke earning a bundle at the expense of some Wall Street creeps while whining about lower Manhattan's new gentry, "who get preorgasmic when you...
(The entire section is 635 words.)
SOURCE: "Disturbed Avenger," in Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1989, p. 5.
[In the following review, Dretzka provides a brief summary of Hard Candy and praises Vachss for his exploration into the darker side of human nature.]
Andrew Vachss' crime novels—all of which feature Burke, an unlicensed Manhattan P.I. and scam artist who doubles as an avenging angel—are as unsettling a collection of books as one is likely to find.
His novels, as cleverly scripted as any currently in the genre, are less about solving crimes than they are about forcing readers to come to grips with the cvil around them. Like Jim Thompson in such works as The Killer Inside Me, Vachss puts that evil under a microscope, revealing aspects of the human character that most of us gladly choose to ignore.
Using their brains more often than their brawn, Burke and his motley band of urban guerrillas do battle against the most vile kind of sociopaths: child abusers, rapists and pedophiles. When perpetrators ignore pointed warnings, Burke's, "crew" administers the brand of street justice to which one is compelled only when a close friend, a relative or a young child is violated. We applaud from our easy chairs, but not without experiencing a palpable degree of queasiness.
In Flood, Strega and Blue Belle, Vachss turned the crime genre upside down by portraying his...
(The entire section is 855 words.)
SOURCE: "Doing Evil Unto Evil," in Tribune Books, July 8, 1990, pp. 3, 11.
[In the following review, Anshaw claims that Vachss's work makes her "morally queasy" and criticizes the "feel-good roll of hate" created by the atmosphere of his novels.]
By the traditions of fiction, the private eye is the conscience of the underside. No choirboy himself, his weariness of evil and its doers comes from close acquaintance. He stands in the same shadows they do, just a bit off to the side, staking out his sorry corner of society from behind a glowing cigarette ember.
A problem for modern writers is dragging this anti-hero into a present where evil no longer stays put in a bad neighborhood, no longer plays itself out within a circumscribed society of crooks and hoods and dolls who drink each other's rye (neat), frequent each other's gambling backrooms and plug each other with .38s. Today, crime can be a quick climb through a left-open window of opportunity, a not entirely unreasonable career choice for those extremely low on options. Anybody can turn out to be a player.
Andrew Vachss' way of updating the gumshoe to fit current crimestyles is to drop the figure's dispassionate pose and turn him from society's conscience into its avenger. The result is both dead-earnest and often inadvertently hilarious. In his worst patches, such as the following urban ode, Vachss sounds like the...
(The entire section is 923 words.)
SOURCE: "A Hard-Boiled Detective, and One Beyond That," in The New York Times, July 12, 1990, p. C20.
[In the following excerpt, Lehmann-Haupt criticizes Blossom for a number of problematic plot elements.]
Blossom is Andrew Vachss's fifth crime novel, after Flood, Strega, Blue Belle and Hard Candy. Mr. Vachss (pronounced VAX) is a lawyer in private practice specializing in juvenile justice and child abuse cases, so it's understandable that his tough-guy hero, Burke, concentrates on fighting people who prey on the lives of children.
But in Blossom, Mr. Vachss seems so eager to show off his specialty that much of his plot is gratuitous. While busy impressing the reader with the squalor and sordidness of juvenile life on the streets of New York City, Burke gets a call from Virgil, a former prison mate of Burke's who now lives in Indiana.
It seems that Virgil's young nephew, Lloyd, has been implicated in the sniper shooting of some teen-age lovers, and he's just disturbed enough about sex to be a plausible suspect. Could Burke come and check Lloyd out and maybe help him out of his jam? Burke could indeed: "Virgil had called at the right time. New York was always hard, but now," thanks to a newspaper personal ad suggesting pedophilia that Burke has just read, "it was ugly."
In fact Burke will not only convince himself of...
(The entire section is 455 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Sacrifice, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 9, 1991, p. 13.
[In the following excerpt, Champlin states that despite its "combination of pulpish devices and empurpled rhetoric," Sacrifice is "mesmerizing in its intensity."]
Andrew Vachss is just about the toughest of contemporary crime novelists, a New York lawyer specializing in juvenile justice cases, who exposes his knowledge of the world's darkest side, and his rage at it, in novels that are not so much narratives as fragments of a mosaic of evil. (The present book has 195 fragments, some only a sentence long.) Sacrifice is Vachss' sixth tale of the horrors wrought upon children. This time his ex-con protagonist Burke is trying to help a child so badly abused that he has taken temporary refuge in a second, murderous personality who, or which, has murdered a baby but has no memory of it.
Burke has a circle of helpers that somewhat resembles the gangs who used to abet Doc Savage and the Shadow, including a deaf and speechless Chinese of enormous speed and stealth, a chap called The Prof who speaks in rap, a woman who runs a Chinese restaurant and hates all customers except Burke and his pals, assorted Jamaicans and others. He is haunted by all the friends, including many women, he has lost violently in earlier books.
The combination of pulpish devices and empurpled...
(The entire section is 321 words.)
SOURCE: "Looking for Her in All the Wrong Places," in The New York Times Book Review, May 23, 1993.
[In the following review, Stade criticizes Vachss's novel Shella as having a "preposterous" plot and "dialogue unlike anyone has ever said, anywhere."]
Ghost, the hero and narrator of Andrew Vachss's seventh roman noir, has just been released from prison. He is looking for his old flame Shella, as she calls herself (a social worker once told her she needed to "come out of her shell"), with whom Ghost used to work the badger game. But when Ghost killed a john who got his kicks by beating prostitutes, Shella fled the scene, leaving Ghost to face the music and serve serious time in jail. Now on parole, which he immediately violates, Ghost travels from city to city, casing the strip joints, Shella's old haunts, which are described by Mr. Vachss with prurient indignation.
He finances his quest with the odd job, for Ghost is by trade an assassin. A half-dozen or so of his killings are described in Shella, a dozen or so-more alluded to. His specialty is to break his victims' necks: Ghost, like Grendel, has a mighty grip. In fact, he is the best in the business, given his steady hands; his patience, his know-how, his invisibility ("Nobody sees me"), his ability to be physically and emotionally anesthetized, his absence of inner conflict, his single-mindedness. Ghost isn't...
(The entire section is 802 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Shella, in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4730, November 26, 1993, p. 22.
[In the following review, Baker criticizes Vachss for presenting his characters in a "heavy-handed" manner.]
"The first time I killed someone, I was scared", confesses the narrator of Andrew Vachss's Shella. "Shella told me it was like that for her the first time she had sex. I was fifteen that first time. Shella was nine." The equation of sex and violence in this opening passage is to govern the book.
Our narrator is a contract killer who is nameless even to his girlfriends, although some people call him "Ghost". Ghost shacks up with a stripper who has the generic nom de porn of Candy, but her self-chosen name is Shella, suggesting a carapace: "Some social worker in one of the shelters told her she had to come out of her shell." Ghost and Shella make a living at "Badger", where she picks up marks and Ghost robs them. After killing one person too many, Ghost does time in prison, and when he comes out he starts searching for the vanished Shella.
He falls in with a group of American Indian criminals who want to assassinate a neo-Nazi leader. He infiltrates the Nazis, and it says something about the novel that the most sympathetic characters in it are to be found among these caricature white-trash losers. After Ghost kills the Nazi, the honest Indians keep...
(The entire section is 514 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Born Bad and Down in the Zero, in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 21, July, 1994.
[In the following review, Lukowsky calls Born Bad a "compelling view of the psychotic personality," but argues that in Down in the Zero, Vachss has abandoned "all pretense of character development."]
Vachss, an attorney specializing in juvenile justice and child abuse, is the author of a series of very successful crime novels, most starring the unconventional detective Burke. His fiction, including this story collection and a new Burke novel, explores the recurring themes of his nonliterary professional life—incest, child abuse, violence to women—but does so from a distinctly nonestablishment, belly-of-the-beast perspective.
Born Bad comprises 44 short pieces—including a three-act play—that look inside the heads of a collection of serial killers, child abusers, and other violent criminals. Vachss' indignation is both his strength and his weakness. His zeal provides the power behind his largely unadorned prose, creating unrelenting pressure but ultimately threatening to jade readers. Still, these snapshots offer a compelling view of the psychotic personality. One story—a vignette, actually—consists of the eerily apologetic monologue a serial killer delivers to his victim; another offers a killer explaining why environment was not the cause of his...
(The entire section is 441 words.)
SOURCE: "Some Are Born Violent, Others Achieve Violence …," in The New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1994, p. 45.
[In the following review, Adcock argues that while Down in the Zero addresses issues more complex than in previous Vachss novels, it reverts to a "mundane plod" due to its failure to explore those issues more deeply.]
Not so long ago, depravity was discussed only after the fact, in confessionals and related whispery venues of holy shame. This was back when such things as pedophilia, bestiality, transvestism, S & M, wife-swapping, incest, necrophilia and other lusty recreations held shock value.
Heaven knows, now anything goes.
Take note of the common stuff of contemporary American culture and you might well conclude that sexual depravity has been thoroughly democratized. No doubt this is why the abundant eroticism of Andrew Vachss's new novel, Down in the Zero, seems so quaint. Consider this bit of pillow talk:
"'She's ready for you now, master,' she said to me.
"I stepped behind Charm, put one hand on the small of her back. My right hand flashed.
"'Aaaargh!' It was a scream of rage."
I cannot recall such flaccidity in the previous novels by Mr. Vachss starring Burke, the urban survivalist of one name, several...
(The entire section is 623 words.)
SOURCE: "Children's Crusaders," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXV, No. 52, December 24, 1995, pp. 5, 10.
[In the following review, Womack criticizes Vachss's work, likening Footsteps of the Hawk to drinking "near-beer," and faulting Batman: The Ultimate Evil for its comic-book style conventions.]
Andrew Vachss has good intentions, surely. For years he has devoted himself to the defense of children against adults who would wreak physical and sexual harm upon them. In his fiction, Vachss's men and women—solitary, suspicious, stoic—tend to bear the scars of such abuse. Depicting the convoluted ways in which their childhood traumas haunt them in adult life often enables him to introduce into his plots an emotional resonance otherwise undeserved. Often; not always.
In Footsteps of the Hawk, Burke, Vachss's ex-con protagonist from his earlier Down in the Zero, finds himself squeezed by two New York cops as he tries to ascertain which one is a serial killer. Is it short-fused, ball-bearing-eyed Morales? "A thick, violent vein pulsed in his neck." Is it marble-thighed, pouty-voiced Belinda? Watching her climb stairs, Burke finds it "hard not to admire those fine flesh-gears meshing." He knows one thing: "I was a blind leech in muddy swampwater, searching for a pulse."
In the past, Burke has suffered familial abuse and long-term stints in...
(The entire section is 1155 words.)
SOURCE: "Batman Goes to Bangkok," in The Nation, Vol. 262, No. 4, January 29, 1996, pp. 34-35.
[In the following review of Batman: The Ultimate Evil, Bishop and Robinson discuss Vachss's use of Batman as a vehicle in his fight against child abuse.]
Pow! What? Batman has taken on child prostitution in Thailand? No, we are not making this up. Zowie! Child abuse, whether at home in Gotham or over in exotic "Udon Khai," is at once the source and the reflection of the ultimate evil? And Batman, of all super heroes, despite his camp associations and (Holy Hypocrisy!) his historic relationship with Robin, enlists to combat commercial pedophilia? That struggle was (Wham!) his late mother's mission, the real reason his parents were murdered? You say the boss (Splat!), the ultimate kingpin of the ultimate evil, is named Malady? And the goal—not of the mythic Batman but of the story we're reading—is (Zap!) to destabilize the Thai govemment? Uh-uh, we are not making any of it up.
In fact, our only problem with the extraordinary new Batman project is that author Andrew Vachss simultaneously is and is not making it up. Vachss's new Warner novel, Batman: The Ultimate Evil, has also been adapted (Dynamic Dual Distribution!) as a two-part DC Comic. In both formats, Batman learns about the hideous child abuse perpetrated in his own grim Gotham and then follows the horror to mysterious...
(The entire section is 1120 words.)
Bryant, Edward. A review of A Flash of White. Locus, September, 1993, p. 69.
Brief review of a chapbook of material by and about Vachss.
Elliott, Steve. "Andrew Vachss Uses Printed Page, World Wide Web to Lobby for Young Victims." The Fresno Bee, August 4, 1997.
Discusses Vachss's use of novels and the World Wide Web as tools for combating child abuse.
(The entire section is 85 words.)