Andrew Vachss

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Michael Dirda (review date 15 September 1985)

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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 pornography. Indeed, he veers close to the didactic in some of his rants about the slime who prey on little kids—but who can blame him? Vachss himself is an expert on child abuse and juvenile delinquency. His is not a pretty world, and he has no use for conventional pieties to excuse atrocity.

Virtually every survivalist fantasy of urban life finds its place here—Burke the vigilante, with his superhero comrades; the city as concrete jungle; civilization constantly assaulted by fiends in human form. Vachss' language is wry, Chandleresque, and laced with authentic details about the methodology and gadgetry of crime.

"I sell a lot of identification, mostly to clowns who want the option to disappear but never will. The stuff looks pretty good—all you need are some genuine state blanks, like for drivers' licenses, and the right typewriter. IBM makes a special typing element…. They call it an OCR element and you can't buy it over the counter but this is something less than a significant deterrent to people who steal for a living. I have a complete set in the office."

Flood's only fault—assuming, of course, one is not dismayed by its draconian social views—may be its length: it sacrifices a tight artistry for a rambling panorama of damned souls. In the end, though, Burke does find the child-killer, and Flood fights for her life in ritual combat.

Newgate Callendar (review date 31 May 1987)

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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.


(This entire section contains 209 words.)

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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.

Bill Brashler (review date 4 September 1988)

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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 money, which he then spreads among his friends, or to avenge situations he finds repulsive, such as cases involving child abuse. In Blue Belle he is commissioned by a Manhattan pimp to get rid of the "Ghost Van," a nasty RV whose occupants kidnap and murder teenage prostitutes.

All of this is strong, gritty, gut-bucket stuff, so unsparing and vivid that it makes you wince. Vachss knows the turf and writes with a sneering bravado. In Burke's world guys have "cement mixer eyes," and "everybody's lying but you and me." Burke prowls the city with a seething, angry, almost psychotic voice appropriate to the devils he deals with.

But hold on. Just when you think you have come up with a companion to your Elmore Leonard collection, Burke meets Belle. And Belle is a disaster. She is a backwoods behemoth—there are enough descriptions of her chest and hind quarters to fill a butcher's manual—with more excess emotional baggage than Sybil. Worst of all, Belle complains, nags, clings and whines incessantly.

In so doing, she turns Burke, who, we must charitably assume, is addled by her gravity-defying body, into a dimestore shrink. In scene after scene he is a tedious, know-it-all with a pat answer for Belle's every psychological glitch, misgiving and whine. Beneath his two-day stubble and street-smarts, Burke becomes a Dr. Joyce Brothers in conversations that end with, "Tears spilled down her face."

Finally the ghost van beckons, and Burke gets back on the case. With Belle not central to the operation, every nasty, frightening element falls into place, and nothing disappoints.

Vachss is good, his Burke books first-rate. Find a new date, Belle.

David Nicholson (review date 4 September 1988)

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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 booby-trapped against unauthorized entry. Burke makes some of his money running scams involving phony Social Security numbers, unauthorized government checks and advertisements recruiting mercenaries. In terms of the genre and for convenience's sake we might call him a private eye or an investigator, except that he has no license and no listing in the telephone book. Burke drives a primer-gray Plymouth with (need it be said?) an exceedingly powerful engine and a 40-gallon gas tank. The Plymouth too is booby trapped.

One of Burke's sidekicks is Max, a mute Mongolian martial arts expert. Another is Michelle, a transvestite prostitute saving to have a sex-change operation. The third is Mole (Vachss seems to like M's), a Zionist electronics genius who lives beneath a junkyard populated by dozens of rusting cars and packs of wild dogs. Mole makes many of the booby traps, including lighters that look like ordinary butane lighters but are filled with napalm.

The plot of a Vachss novel goes something like this: A beautiful woman seeks Burke's assistance in finding someone who abuses and/or murders children. Burke and the woman join forces to go after the child abuser. The beautiful woman, spirited and independent, has trouble doing what Burke tells her to do. She and Burke argue. She and Burke make love. Burke calls on his buddies—Max, Michelle and Mole—for help in tracking down the child abuser. Burke gets beaten up (sometimes by the beautiful and spirited woman). Burke finds the child abuser. Burke kills the child abuser. The beautiful woman dies or goes somewhere Burke cannot follow; either way, Burke loses her.

In Blue Belle, the beautiful woman is named Belle, and the child abuser drives a van around New York, shooting teen prostitutes through the back door. Belle and Burke argue. Belle and Burke make love. Burke calls on his buddies—Max, Michelle and Mole—for help in tracking down the child abuser. Burke gets beaten up. Burke … well, surely you get the point.

Vachss deals, as do many television shows, in broad strokes. And as on most big-city, urban crime shows, blacks exist as either pimps or prostitutes. In Blue Belle, the pimp is Marques (those M's again), who recruits Belle to hire Burke to find the killer. The killers' victims are young white girls, but there are several, unnamed, black prostitutes Burke encounters as he proceeds with his investigation. Racial epithets are freely tossed around. Their use does not, however, add to the depiction of a gritty twilight world; instead, they come off as a cheap way of authenticating the atmosphere in which the characters move.

Those characters, Burke, Max, Mole, Michelle, are less characters than types or collections of traits; Max, for example, is literally the strong, silent type. And the plot of the novel is less a series of incidents flowing organically from the interaction of particular, realized human beings than a string of events that must happen if Vachss is to keep the story going. That he does and does well, for there is an undeniable raw power to Blue Belle that keeps the reader turning the pages.

But sheer narrative drive is only part of what has kept readers coming back for more. The key to the attraction of the novels lies in Burke's role as fantasy figure. He is a hero of our times, a kind of urban Tarzan, lord of the asphalt jungle. Like other tough-guy, private investigator heroes, Burke lives by his own moral code in an amoral world. But to an unprecedented extent, he lives in the twilight between the legal and the illegal. He strives to be his own man, knowing he is not truly part of the system, and knowing too that he can never escape it. Burke's solution, then, is to devise ways to make the system work for him.

Some of this is occasionally moving, as when Burke reminisces about his stints in prison and the reasons for his choices. These have a ring of authenticity. Much of the novel, however, reads like the fantasies of a fed-up New Yorker: Burke never comes home to find a notice that the telephone company is going to cut off his telephone; he's managed to tap into the line used by his upstairs neighbors. He owns nothing in his own name (something he reminds us of constantly), so nothing can be taken from him. With a booby-trapped apartment—poison darts, explosives and an attack dog—he never has to worry about burglars. Burke just may be the ultimate urban paranoid—you can't call him, and when he calls you, it's from a phone booth Mole has rigged up to relay the call several times so that it can't be tapped.

All this technology, like so much else in Blue Belle and Vachss' other novels, while possible, just isn't credible. The effect of Vachss' exaggeration, for this reader at least, is the opposite of what he intends: His characters are larger than life, but it is distortion, not mythmaking, and Blue Belle, like its predecessors, isn't about people we can recognize in situations that, no matter how fantastic, compel our belief.

Despite Burke's moral stance against child abuse and exploitation, despite Vachss' energetic rendering of the sensational, there is, in the end, little to engage the reader in Blue Belle. At a time when a substantial case can be made that the mystery (or, if you prefer, crime novel or thriller) ought to be promoted from the strait jacket of genre fiction, Vachss has expanded the genre's conventions without testing their limits. Burke remains the same from novel to novel, which is comforting for those who dislike surprises, but disappointing for those readers who believe that even the characters of a mere detective story should show some evidence of the human capability to react and change.

Andrew Abrahams (essay date 19 September 1988)

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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?' Someone who knows children are for sale wouldn't be shocked to think lawyers are too, now would they?"

Vachss has taken his own anger and turned the flame up higher to create Burke, the central character in all of his books. An orphan raised by the state and an ex-con, Burke has parlayed his knowledge of criminal life into a shady private-eye business. He has a staff working for him, which includes Max, a mute who is a sweet, sensitive guy, when he's not beating a tattoo on the ribs of some freak.

Vachss's raw prose has hit home with critics almost as hard as one of Max's karate chops. "The words leap off the page, the principal character is original, and the style is as clean as a haiku," wrote David Morrell in the Washington Post. This month Vachss, as tough and blunt as his fictional voice, will have his third book, Blue Belle, published. His first, Flood, has sold more than 250,000 copies in hardcover and paperback; Strega (published in paperback last spring) has already sold twice as many, and Vachss is mulling over film offers for both Strega and Blue Belle.

When the movies are cast, Vachss might be considered for the principal role. Handsome, with a taut, angular face, the author wears a patch over his right eye as the result of an incident he says he can't recall—though he does remember it was a chain that did the damage. When he describes some of the countless atrocities that have been inflicted upon children, some as young as 3 months old, his good eye fixes on the listener as if to burn the image of each infuriating act deep into the visitor's brain.

Though they use different means to achieve their ends, Vachss and Burke have much in common. Burke's pet is an attack-trained 140-lb. mastiff; Vachss happens to own a 140-lb. mastiff as well. In Strega, Burke falls for a character named Eva Wolfe, a special prosecutor for New York City's "Citywide Special Victims Bureau." Vachss's wife, Alice, 37, is an assistant district attorney who runs the Special Victims Bureau in the Queens district attorney's office, which prosecutes, among others, cases of child abuse.

Surprisingly, Vachss denies that his books are autobiographical, and he insists the graphic violence that permeates them is not meant to titillate but to evoke the gamy reality of the streets. "I'm not selling vigilantism," he maintains. "The parts of the books that have survived from my life are the moralities, the principles and some of the situations, not the characters."

Vachss started writing fiction four years ago to supplement his meager income as a lawyer; the children he defends, of course, have no financial resources, while their parents may be the ones charged with abuse. He also hopes to educate the public. "I want to make people think, and I want them to get angry," he says. He spends much of his time searching the seamiest parts of New York, hoping to wrest an innocent child from the pimps and the kiddie-porn merchants. "A kid getting off a bus at Times Square is a piece of raw meat being thrown into a shark tank," says Vachss. "Whoever gets there first gets it." If he succeeds in intercepting a runaway, Vachss attempts to get the child into foster care or place him or her in a juvenile facility.

The son of a shipping manager who played semipro football, Vachss grew up amid the teeming tenements of Manhattan's pregentrified Lower West Side, where he learned the rough-and-tumble rules of the street. According to his brother, Woody, young Andrew became familiar early on with the gritty side of urban life. "Andy was always off on his own," says Woody, 43, a probation officer in New Hampshire. "He had a group of friends that I remember as being kind of weird." Woody also recognizes a few of the characters in his older brother's books. "Max existed. So did the Mole [an unsavory character who lives in a junkyard and hunts Nazis]. He may have borrowed a little from one guy and folded it into another, but those guys were real."

Andrew Vachss became acquainted with all the dismal details of child abuse when, after graduating from Western Reserve University in 1965, he tracked the spread of syphilis for the U.S. Public Health Service in Ohio. "I saw kids who were horribly abused," he recalls. "If you're going to follow syphilis to its end, you're going to find incest. I wasn't shocked at people being shot or stabbed when I was growing up, but I was real shocked that people would do these things to their own kids." From 1971 to 1975, he held a string of jobs, most of them dealing with the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.

In 1972 Vachss jumped at the chance to run ANDROS II, a maximum-security juvenile facility near Boston, and he is proud of having turned it around. "The place was below a jungle when I got there," he says. "I learned that you can run a jail without letting the inmates run the show." There he met Alice, then a law student, who was writing a history of the institution. "He was extremely intense, and he was also effective," says Alice. "There were three rules in that place: no sex, no violence and no drugs. They were enforced, and that was the first time the kids ever had that." She and Vachss married a few years later—both profess not to remember exactly when. "I think it's our 10th anniversary this year, but we're not very sentimental about those things," says Alice.

Both are intensely devoted to their work and jealous of their privacy. They live in a one-bedroom brick Queens house protected by guard dogs and a number of security devices since each has been threatened many times by criminals they have opposed in court. Because of their commitment to their jobs, they say, and not because of the wretchedness they have seen in the world, the Vachsses have chosen not to have children. Andrew Vachss's writing is not a release from that commitment, he insists, but an extension of it. "I don't fancy myself a writer," he says, leaning back in a creaky chair and speaking in a gravelly voice Burke would be proud of. "I've only got but one story to tell."

Richard Gehr (review date 29 November 1988)

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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 whisper 'investment banking.'" He lives like a paranoid war criminal in a heavily fortified bunker along with a vicious yet lovable Neapolitan mastiff named Pansy—not all that different from the newcomers he despises. A loner among loners, he has a father complex on account of his institutional upbringing; Vachss reads savviest in scenes involving supercynical Burke with the police, attorneys, and family agencies.

This stems from Vachss's impeccable credentials as a lawyer in the fields of juvenile justice and child abuse (he still lectures and trains on the subject). His indignation at pedophiles, pimps, and pornographers is righteous as hell and has grown over the course of the books. Now Burke's personal torments seem secondary to the children's crusade he has undertaken ("I was going to be a scam artist. But I kept running into kids. And they keep pulling me into what I didn't want to be"). What's good for the world is bad for Vachss's fans; Burke's scams are much more intriguing than his social services. In Blue Belle, the "kids" are menaced by the Ghost Van, which appears out of nowhere to torment New York's underage girl hookers, who are either offed on the spot or sped to a Times Square porn palace to star in snuff films.

The dead pros may be white, but the perps are Hispanic: "Word is he uses blood the way some freaks use Vaseline…. The Spanish guy, he don't want nothing to do with nothing that ain't white. No Puerto Ricans, no Chinese … nothing that's out there but white meat." The total weirdness to be found in New York always seems to surprise the good guys, who repeatedly gasp things like, "Who does this … What kind of freaks?"

Yet the city's inherent freakiness appears to have rubbed off on Vachss/Burke. Belle, the novel's lust interest, is a strapping 29-year-old blond stripper endowed with inordinate t&a; she appears much younger, however, speaks in a "little-girl" voice, and is herself an incest child. The surly kiddie defender wastes no time falling for this big baby, whose predilections run toward spanking and buggery ("If I try to sit on your face again, you going to give me another smack?"). But since all good things must end for Burke, the former swamp sister falls in the line of duty. Vachss might consider giving Burke a rest, too. The line between virtue and vice is always problematic, and with Burke's secret proclivities now uncovered, he should probably be kept off the streets for a while.

Gary Dretzka (review date 11 June 1989)

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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 P.I. not as a modernday cowboy hero or hardboiled Knight of the Round Table but as a paranoid, and increasingly morose, vigilante. Burke is a crafty ex-con, and his turf is the dark underbelly of Manhattan. His "street family" army consists of a deaf-mute Mongolian warrior, a jive-talking black street hustler, a transsexual prostitute, a mole-like electronics genius, a teenager rescued from a life of sexual abuse, and a monstrous dog. His enemies, usually martial-arts experts, possess superhuman skills.

Vachss' fans will find in Hard Candy a tight summation of the emotional tension that has built within Burke like a volcano through the earlier books, then an explosively cathartic resolution. It begins with a particularly troubling example of frontier justice—a settling of scores left over from Blue Belle—when Burke confronts the fear and anxiety that have paralyzed him since the shootout that unnecessarily claimed his lover in that book.

"Down here, we have rules," Burke says, explaining his call to action. "We made them ourselves. Feeling dead inside me—that was a feeling. It wouldn't bring Belle back to me—wouldn't get me closer. But making somebody dead … that was a debt."

He subsequently is hired by Candy, a kinky call-girl and acquaintance from his twisted childhood, to rescue her daughter from a cult leader called Train. Simple enough, but he manages at the same time to cross paths with a spooky freelance assassin named Wesley—another blast from Burke's past—who thinks that Burke is cutting into his business. And, for their part, certain NYPD detectives are none too pleased that he double crossed them in a Times Square sting operation in Blue Belle.

Through Candy and Wesley, Vachss exposes many of Burke's early roots and sets him on a course that either will rid New York of some of its most camivorous perverts, mobsters and religious charlatans or put him in a straitjacket. Harkening back to earlier books, the author calls in Burke's haunting, red-haired nemesis, Strega, and the memory of his beloved Flood, now in faraway Japan.

Because of all this emotional and textual baggage, Hard Candy might be a difficult spot for newcomers to jump into Vachss' repertoire. The series, with its many continuing characters and themes, should be read in order; and so many loose ends are tied together in Hard Candy that it might be tough to appreciate Burke's motivations without having already read Blue Belle, at least.

Vachss, an attorney specializing in child-abuse cases, has placed on Burke's shoulders the weight of America's frustrations over courtroom failures, its collective desire for retribution and the weakness of its people in the face of true evil. But the solutions to society's greatest ills aren't simple, and it's obvious in Hard Candy that Burke doesn't always make the right decisions and that knowing this is throwing him off-balance.

"Driving home [from an encounter with Strega], my black and white eyes were still working, but the images were reversed. Inside out. Inverted. For me, playing it safe wasn't playing—it was my life. I couldn't find the controls—nothing was where it had been. Terror said it was my partner, but I didn't have my old pal Fear to keep the nerve endings sharp…. Liars gave me their word, sociopaths gave me their trust."

Burke isn't for everyone—certainly the horrible violence, explicit sex and unspeakably ugly crimes of his books won't appeal to those who read mysteries each night to ease their journey into Dreamland—but he fills a void in a cluttered, too often unchallenging genre. With his soiled white hat, this Lone Ranger of the '90s asks difficult questions of readers, while also shining light into the darkest recesses of their souls. It wouldn't hurt for more people to pay attention.

Carol Anshaw (review date 8 July 1990)

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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 winner of a literary parody contest:

"Gut-grinding poverty. Sandpaper for the soul. Pigeons overhead, circling in flocks. Hawks on the ground. Make enough wrong turns and you're on a no-way street."

The going gets even rougher when Vachss' protagonist—the ex-con detective Burke—begins rhapsodizing on his favorite subject, himself:

"A legless man pulled himself along the floor of the train, his hands covered with tattered mittens. The upper half of his body sat on a flat wooden disc, separated from the cart by a foot-high column. So you could see he wasn't faking it. He rattled the change in his cup, not saying a word. Humans buried their faces in newspapers, I tapped his shoulders as he rolled by. Stuffed a ten-dollar bill in his cup. He pulled it out, looked it over. Locked my eyes.

"'Thank you, my brother,' he said. Strong, clear voice.

"We always know each other, those of us with missing parts."

Burke's main missing part seems to be a sense of personal ironic detachment. He takes himself more seriously than even your average ultra-macho private eye. Although no one seems to be after him, Burke lives in a maximum-security apartment presided over by a killer attack-dog. Though he doesn't seem to get an undue number of calls, he has all his messages elaborately screened through the phone at Mama Wong's Chinese restaurant.

Basically a loner, he nonetheless clears a little space on the ground where he stands, so women can worship there. His basic attitude toward the female gender puts him somewhere in the company of Andrew Dice Clay. Burke's idea of a witty personals ad is: "Woman wanted. Disease-free. Self-lubricating. Short attention span."

Blossom is Burke's fifth appearance between covers. This time he leaves his Manhattan turf behind and heads for Merrillville, Ind., where an old jail-cell buddy has family troubles. His young cousin has been charged with a grim stack of serial killings—shootings of necking couples in parked cars. Burke quickly (operating on tough-guy instinct) decides the kid didn't do it. Who really did is sure to be some filthy sicko scum because these are the bad guys in society, as Vachss constructs it.

Burke (operating on tough-guy psychological acumen) figures this particular sicko's sickness is that he can't stand to see normal red-blooded guys and gals groping each other. Killing them is his way of having sex. Then (using tough-guy deductive reasoning) Burke figures out this means the killer must have been an abused child the court returned to his horrorshow family.

Not that this profound understanding of the criminal mind leads Burke to any wimp sympathy for it. When Blossom (the book's title character and typical female—diner waitress/doctor/wearer of stockings with garters) suggests the killer might be mentally ill, Burke says,

"It felt like I was being baited. Goaded into something.

"'You think he needs a psychiatrist?,' I asked her.

"'Don't you?'


Burke has sterner measures in mind for this "filth," "freak," "greasy human," "thing," whom he tracks down through the roster of a rural neo-Nazi group.

When he's not writing, Vachss is a New York attorney specializing in juvenile justice and child abuse. Surely this has brought him up against the uglier side of humanity and probably accounts for the virulent hatred implicit in his fiction.

The Joel Steinbergs of the world bring vigilante blood to at least a simmer in most of us. But it's an impulse of unilateral judgment and one that civilization requires we resist. Vachss doesn't bother. Blossom gets on a feel-good roll of hate that doesn't brake for compassion.

Vachss draws his villains as right-wing paramilitary nutcases, making his story a perfect circle of violence and loathing. The good guys want to get rid of the filth and scum whose intent it is to get rid of the filth and scum. In a world like this the only difference in belief systems is one's definition of filth and one's choice of clean-up method.

That Vachss' books are popular scares me a little. I don't like thinking I'm the only reader made morally queasy inside his airless, closed loop.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 12 July 1990)

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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 Lloyd's innocence, by palpating the boy's battered libido as only he can do, but he will also prove that Lloyd is guiltless by catching the real sniper. Three problems, however, now afflict Mr. Vachss's plot.

First, certain members of the police also become convinced of Lloyd's innocence, thereby weakening the urgency of the actual perpetrator's capture. Second, Burke begins to hound the real sniper by means that depend too strongly on instinct. One understands that there's little to distinguish the criminal mind from the policeman's; but in Mr. Vachss's handling of this truism there are a few too many lines about Burke's knowing freaks as nobody else does.

"You're scaring me," Burke's lover, Blossom, tells him long after the reader has grasped the idea. "Your voice. Like you're … him. Like you see what he saw."

Finally, the climax of Blossom is about what you expect it to be. True, there's one small twist, but it obscures more problems than it solves. Otherwise, what happens is precisely what you expect. Since you've been imagining it for a hundred pages or so, it is bound to seem disappointing.

Mr. Vachss is full of good ideas and a keen appreciation of human depravity, particularly as it affects children. But in Blossom, at least, his expertise seems two-dimensional. He paints the human soul gray, and that grayness suggests nothing so much as fog.

Charles Champlin (review date 9 June 1991)

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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 rhetoric occasionally comes close to defeating Vachss intentions. "This isn't a city. It's a halfway house without a roof. Stressed to critical mass … Fear rules. Politicians promise the people an army of blue-coated street-sweepers for a jungle no chemical could defoliate…. The walls of some buildings still tremble with the molecular memory of baby-bashing violence and incestuous terror."

Yet despite the stressful writing, Vachss waves a powerful light across a city landscape that few writers go near, and none portray so convincingly. It is unpleasant, but it is also mesmerizing in its intensity.

George Stade (review date 23 May 1993)

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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 much of a reader, doesn't know how to shake hands or smile; he is fairly indifferent to sex, eschews drugs and alcohol, can't understand why people put up pictures on their walls. But he does love his Shella—or maybe he hates her. With a man like Ghost, the difference hardly counts.

Getting nowhere, Ghost searches out a gangster named Monroe, who has many sources of information, and offers a trade: Ghost will do a guy for Monroe; Monroe will locate Shella. Ghost does the guy and even throws in a freebie, also a nasty character—but then all of Ghost's victims are nasty characters, usually sexual "freaks," for Mr. Vachss wants us to admire his hero. Unfortunately, Monroe welshes on his part of the deal and sends a hit man after Ghost. But this poor fellow fails, fatally.

Things begin to look up when Ghost is approached by an Indian, name of Wolf, who knows a soul mate when he sees one: "You and me, we're the same. Brothers in the blood," says Wolf, who belongs to a "pack" of Indian professional assassins. Their problem is that they can't get close to the man their client wants taken out, the leader of a neo-Nazi cult. If Ghost will do the job, the client, a mad computer genius, will locate Shella, guaranteed.

The second half of Mr. Vachss's novel is devoted to Ghost's adventures among the cult members, figures out of tabloid television, as he moves from the outer to the inner circle. Along the way, he easily passes his initiation test, which is to kill a black man; but because he selects a pimp who "works little girls," we aren't expected to hold it against him.

Does Ghost break the leader's neck? Does he find Shella? My lips are sealed. It can be said, though, that the plot is preposterous, the characters based on rumor, paranoia and light literature, the dialogue unlike anything anyone has ever said, anywhere. In this respect Shella is like Mr. Vachss's other novels, whose hero and narrator is Burke, another psychopath with whom his creator is in love. In Shella there is the same self-pity and self-congratulation as in the Burke novels, even the butterfly symbolism and sentimentality about dogs.

When it comes to style, however, Shelia is an improvement over its predecessors. Burke tells his stories in a style that is both laconic and garrulous; the sentences are short or fragmentary, but there are pages of them given over to fulminations against urban-depravity and sexual predation, especially of children. Ghost, on the other hand, is laconic and affectless; in Shella, the righteous indignation is expressed through particulars, rather than by tone or outright assertion.

Ghost's character and Shella's gradually revealed savagery, as it turns out, are explained (and excused) by backgrounds of childhood neglect and abuse. These are serious matters, but as Mr. Vachss uses them they feel like moral blackmail, pretexts for murder and fantasies of revenge. It is no use, of course, knocking the other guy's fantasy fiction: the genre's function is to allow in the imagination what we deny ourselves in the flesh, and it is just as likely to siphon off dangerous emotions as to encourage them. If you are boiling over with vengeful fury upon which you cannot act, Mr. Vachss may be the man for you—now that Mickey Spillane is out of style.

Phil Baker (review date 26 November 1993)

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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 their side of the bargain by tracing Shella. She has been working as a dominatrix, and the book's picturesque excursions into formal sadomasochism are only the logical extension of its first premisses. Shella has been going too far and murdering her clients, in a belated revenge on her father who sexually abused her. She has also, for reasons best known to Andrew Vachss, been drinking their blood, and it is this which has led to her slow death from AIDS. Ghost's final favour is as predictable as its simile; her neck snaps "like a dry twig".

Shella slips by in bite-sized chunks, the product of a culture with a short attention span. It is an exercise in style and ambience, in almost parodic masculine hardness ("Cancer don't look tough either", one character warns another about Ghost), against a background of deeply trawled contemporary sleaze. Underlying it is Vachss's picture of the effect of American prisons and juvenile detention centres, psychopath factories, where gang rape is routine (and consequently becoming commonplace in "new emetic" American crime fiction): Ghost began his lethal career by pulping the head of a sleeping rapist with a radio battery swung in a sock.

Vachss's presentation of damaged and ruined identities—people whose minds are "all scar tissue", as Ghost's is said to be—can be heavy-handed, and the emotional inarticulacy of his characters sometimes approaches the posturing pseudo-poetry of Bruce Springsteen lyrics. The book is narrated in three sections; clubs, diamonds and spades. There are no hearts in it. Like so much else in the book, the stylization and veiled sentimentality with which this point is made recalls the aesthetics of the tattoo parlour.

Wes Lukowsky (review date July 1994)

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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 aberration. By the time one encounters the tenth psycho killer, though, they all begin to sound the same.

In Down in the Zero, Burke, the dark, brooding street angel and avenger of children and exploited women, is critically depressed if not suicidal. On his last case, he was forced to kill a child, and the grief is eating him alive. When Randy, a youth from the wealthy suburbs and son of an old Burke flame, asks for help, Burke hesitates. It is only when Burke learns Randy's peers are committing suicide that he intervenes. The usual Burke potpourri of sexual perversion, incest, greed, and child abuse results. There are a few new spins: this time the evil emanates not from sleazy crime barons but from an ostensibly legitimate business, and the suburban locale provides Burke a forum to critique modern shopping-mall youth, which he does with gusto. Finally, though, it's still the same old Burke. He's a one-trick pony, a revenge machine who has no faith in the system and usually commits a criminal act to bring the bad guys down. Is Vachss using Burke to work out his own frustrations as a lawyer who must work within the system? Maybe so, but the demon-purging process is taking its toll. The Burke series once seemed innovative and utterly original. Now, with all pretense of character development abandoned, it's tough to distinguish one Burke novel from another.

Thomas Adcock (review date 20 November 1994)

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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 sorrows and no excuses. In past offerings like Flood, Strega and Hard Candy, Mr. Vachss's readers have come to expect the sort of predatory sex that can cause some of them to run off and be sick, the natural-born violence of characters with lives as rough as plowed concrete, the bullet-riddled prose style. Mr. Vachss's leather and acid literary reputation was well deserved—then. Perhaps the great malling of depravity has caused Mr. Vachss to explore more complex (and potentially more timely) terrain than usual with Down in the Zero, set amid the moneyed squalor of suburban Connecticut and dealing with the abyss of adolescent suicide and with the guiltiest recesses of Burke's haunted soul.

Unfortunately, this meatier territory is much too briefly trodden. We are left, instead, with a mundane plod through most of this tale. Burke gets a telephone call out of the blue from a Connecticut lad named Randy, who fears he's the next probable victim in a rash of suspicious teen-age deaths. Randy is the son of an acquaintance of Burke's, a lesbian scamp to whom he is indebted for past favors; Burke reluctantly charges to the rescue, thereby booking up with a suburban kinky crowd, largely in the persons of two cutely named sisters, Fancy and Charm. Mucking up the enterprise are fatuous passages about smugglers, espionage and computers.

There are some finely sour riffs along the way: "Out here, they whip their kids with words. Cuts just as deep." "For the privileged, life is a karaoke machine—even if they can't sing, the background's always there for support." "People say you can't heal until you can forgive…. A beast steals your soul, you don't get it back by making peace with him. You make peace with yourself." But these hardly provide Down in the Zero the vital organs it needs.

Nor do the bons mots begin to address a worthy pair of social questions that somehow manage to limp through the thicket of an unremarkable plot: familial cruelty disguised as love, and our national habit of ignoring dead-eyed kids.

Mr. Vachss is a man with a sweet and angry heart, which has led him to specialize in juvenile justice and child abuse as a lawyer. His novels are, in a sense, an extension of the battle to protect children. Previously, his righteous heart has bled well in the cause of literature as in law. But this time, regrettably, the pulse of Mr. Vachss the novelist has very nearly struck zero.

Jack Womack (review date 24 December 1995)

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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 state facilities, but his allusions to these events are so perfunctory that he might be recalling someone else's recovered memories. Still, with impeccable timing, his reveries arise whenever the plot takes especially recherche twists. Burke doesn't much like his city ("New York may be a woman, the way some writers say. If she is, she's a low-class evil bitch"), yet he is keenly perceptive of her raffish byways, where "feral dogs fear the feral children, and even the STOP signs are bullet-pocked." He mimes the role of Chandlerian mean-street moralist with approximate panache: "Time and people passed, at about the same speed. I know about that—in my life, I've killed some of both. I learned something too—killing time is harder."

Vachss burdens Burke with roguish associates. There's Mama, whose Chinatown restaurant is the hub of a vast, shadowy operation whose miscreants manage to serve Burke's most petty needs; Max, his "warrior," i.e., goon; Fortunato, a mob lawyer who clips his cigars with a small silver guillotine; tawny-thighed hooker Mojo Mary, "half-Cajun, half-Lao;" and an entourage of Tyson-sized palookas, one of whom, regrettably, speaks in rhyme: "It don't take no rocket scientist to be a ho', bro—all you need is the lips and the hips." Burke also owns a Neapolitan mastiff named Pansy. He shouldn't.

If Vachss never approaches James Ellroy in portraying a palpably evil or even believable world, rarely does he flounder into Mickey Spillane terrain—more's the pity. But savor such delights as "'Liar!' she hissed" when you find them, and as for the episode of Burke being strapped naked into an electric chair while—no, see for yourself. For those who crave that bitter aftertaste, the frothy head on Footstep's near-beer should momentarily slake their thirst.

Onward, downward. The inherent difficulty with transferring a popular-culture hero of an earlier era (e.g., Tarzan, James Bond) into the context of the contemporary world is that the retrofitted hero invariably becomes more two-dimensional. It pleases us to see Sherlock Holmes apply deductive reasoning sitting in a hansom cab on Baker Street; seeing him similarly ratiocinating, standing atop the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza, evokes a different response. Believably recreating, in writing, a hero taken from a predominantly visual medium is even harder. Few writers try. In Batman: The Ultimate Evil, Vachss tries. Appended to the end of the novel is a heartbreaking article detailing the scope of child exploitation in Southeast Asia, notably Thailand. It's not fiction. Gotham, we have a problem.

The fondly remembered Caped Crusader no longer tilts at the likes of Guest Windmill Tallulah Bankhead to the accompaniment of "Wam-O!" and "Splurp!" In keeping with the Zeitgeist, he has of late been transmogrified into the moody, broody, gloom-'n'-doomy Night-Rider, as Vachss tags him (thankfully, no subtle homage to earlier masked avengers seems intended). But in Vachss's mitts, noir becomes bete noire, and Batman battles pedophiles.

The reader is initially lulled into hoping the hazards ahead will not be so unfamiliar, as our hero busies himself of an evening snapping thuggish arms "like twigs," moving at the speed of "a turbo-charged mongoose" and listening contentedly to that "crackle-crunch sound that always foretells a fractured skull." The Batmobile is described lovingly, yet gnomically, as if a Motor Trend reviewer had been translated into Slovakian by someone more familiar with Czech. Its wheels, we are told, are guided by "massive iridium screws," probably in the manner of dilithium crystals. The Night-Rider may uphold the laws of Gotham City, but he remains blissfully oblivious to those of inertia, momentum, gravity.

In mufti, Batman encounters orange-eyed Debra Kane, a child protection services case-worker. ("'An albino woman,' Bruce Wayne thought. 'And a proud one too.'") As he isn't much of a raconteur and his unadorned face is no more than "a fleshy mask of blandness," when Kane meets Wayne she is forced to break the ice by telling him about child abuse; he's shocked. They go to a housing project, the sight of which nearly does him in. The reader slowly comprehends why Gotham's crime rate never seems to go down.

Then, having spent half the book striving to situate Batman in a city so reminiscent of New York that one seedy quarter is called, by happenstance, "The Bowery," Vachss proceeds in the second half to loose his Night-Rider upon a Satanic child-procuring cabal in—the projects? Thailand? No, in the land of "Udon Khai," where the leading industry is providing well-heeled tourists with sex with children aboard a ship called, truly, the Lollypop.

Be charitable—try. Imagine Vachss on the afternoon he wrote this book. Two-thirty: time to send Batman to Thailand. My God … no. His flesh-gears mesh uncontrollably as, horrified, he suddenly perceives the problem he has thus far managed to ignore: The broad shoulders of the Night-Rider will snap like twigs beneath the weight of this particular reality. What to do? That's it

So, quickly: En route to Udon Khai, Batman encounters Evil in all its forms—a "portly man dressed in a white suit," possibly Sydney Greenstreet; a "muscular woman in a black Mohawk" who walks a snow leopard on a leash; cabal kingpin William X. Malady, who keeps his left hand close to "a giant globe on which a map of the world had been painted"; and countless Uzi-blasting extras shipped over as a job lot from a soft-porn version of "Terry and the Pirates." Good wins. Bad loses.

Batman: The Ultimate Evil is as satisfying—aesthetically, ethically, morally—as a pulse-pounding yarn in which pulpfiction hero Doc Savage ransacks the shantytowns of South America in a terribly successful search for Doc Mengele.

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

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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 Udon Khai, where he destroys a tourist industry founded on the sexual enslavement of children. Since Udon Khai, like Batman, exists only in fantasy, both novel and comic book include an appendix—journalist David Hechler's article describing actual child sex tourism in Thailand—along with a list of organizations working against it. One of these, Vachss's own Don't! Buy! Thai! (we are not making up those multiple, comic book-style exclamation points, either), is coordinating an international boycott of Thai exports in which Vachss hopes to engage his readers.

For Vachss, child prostitution and international pedophile tourism dwarf any revelations about Batman's past, as the superhero's fame becomes a vehicle for the author's larger project. In a recent interview, Vachss told us that "Batman is a story and Thailand is not enough of a story." In fact, even Thailand, a major but by no means solitary offender in this area, takes a back seat to the issue of child abuse writ large. Any apparent anomaly is resolved by Vachss's assertion that "child protection and crime prevention are the same thing." Hitherto, Batman has merely been "fighting criminals, not crime"; he can now trace his brooding dissatisfaction with his life's work to his inability to recognize this distinction. By linking child abuse, social ills and criminal activity, Vachss uses Batman in much the same way the comic-book hero uses his Batmobile: as a crime-fighting instrument. Vachss enlists Batman in his laudable thirty-year fight against child abuse of all sorts; he hopes that the superhero will take the cause to a super-big audience.

The contractual restrictions that Vachss accepted in order to enroll the Caped Crusader in this particular crusade require a clear disjunction between fiction (Batman and Udon Khai) and reality (the child prostitutes of Thailand). In the text, Vachss effects the transition with a signed statement, as the tone shifts from the mythic ("'In their name!' the Batman cried deep within himself as he swung through the open window to face the ultimate evil") to the reportorial ("Child sex tourism is not new"). Does the invented narrative support the real one? On the most basic level, of course it does. The fiction tells a story about child abuse and sexual slavery and the reportage exposes Batman's mass readership to facts about sex tourism in Thailand that arguably would reach them in no other way. But Batman's fictional adventures in fictitious Udon Khai may make it harder to appreciate the true story meant to mobilize readers to action.

Batman: The Ultimate Evil is a techno-thriller. The original Batman possessed no superpowers. Instead of extraterrestrial strength, flight or X-ray vision, he had an exquisitely trained body and loads of fancy equipment. Vachss builds on this history: Batman's workout is now so intense that the cool-down alone takes ninety minutes, and the Batmobile's new gadgetry makes the car a lot smarter than you are. He also has access to the latest weaponry—Batman supplies the Udon Khai guerrillas with an arsenal worth two-and-a-half pages of description—and computers loaded with all knowable information. To free the children of Udon Khai, Batman, himself a finely tuned machine getting in touch with its inner child, need only deploy the various mechanisms along the trail illuminated by the data—and Zap!

By contrast, the reader who joins the real-world struggle is assigned a much less glamorous task with far fewer visible results: simply refusing to buy products made in Thailand. It's not a role for which the political economy of mythical Udon Khai offers much preparation. Udon Khai's is a one-industry economy, based on specialized, pedophiliac sex tourism at astronomical prices and with long waiting lists, controlled by a single resident foreigner, the vicious William X. Malady. Thailand's real sex industry is part of an international development strategy favoring mass tourism, the attraction being cheap, abundant sex with teenage and adult prostitutes, as well as children. If there's a "kingpin"—and we're not sure it's that simple—it's the World Bank, and the malady is global capitalism. That and the international AIDS epidemic….

Aware that he's writing for "an audience with an attention span of X," where X = minimal, Vachss intentionally narrows the focus of his novel to make his point more dramatic. But he also wants to motivate this attention-X audience to social action Now, while they may indeed buy many of the products manufactured in Thailand (e.g., athletic shoes and action-hero figurines), Batman's principal audience, young males who read comic books, may not be the most likely source of international consumer activism, especially in these apolitical times. More worrisome is the efficacy of a boycott in this situation. Most people in Thailand who sell themselves or their children into sex work do so because they lack other options. Outside the sex trade, the labor market offers work—at a fraction of a prostitute's earnings—as domestics and production workers in the very sweatshops that produce athletic shoes and action-hero figurines. So a general boycott may result in even fewer choices for children and parents. Moreover, the Chuan government, which was publicly committed to ending child prostitution, has recently been replaced by a coalition of old-time politicos who favor a business-as-usual stance. Vachss may have the right idea, but action directed against the sex industry itself may be a more effective strategy.


Principal Works


Further Reading