Andrew Vachss Essay - Critical Essays

Vachss, Andrew


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.

Biographical Information

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 Vachss and his wife, Alice, also an attorney, live in New York.

Major Works

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."

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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


Michael Dirda (review date 15 September 1985)

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.)

Newgate Callendar (review date 31 May 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

Bill Brashler (review date 4 September 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

David Nicholson (review date 4 September 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 1193 words.)

Andrew Abrahams (essay date 19 September 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 1290 words.)

Richard Gehr (review date 29 November 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Gary Dretzka (review date 11 June 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 855 words.)

Carol Anshaw (review date 8 July 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 923 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 12 July 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Charles Champlin (review date 9 June 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 321 words.)

George Stade (review date 23 May 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 802 words.)

Phil Baker (review date 26 November 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Wes Lukowsky (review date July 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Thomas Adcock (review date 20 November 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

Jack Womack (review date 24 December 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1155 words.)

Ryan Bishop and Lillian S. Robinson (review date 29 January 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 1120 words.)

Further Reading


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.)