Alphabet in crime fiction: Andrew Vachss

V I first discovered Andrew Vachss back in 1986, by reading his first novel, Flood, on its UK paperback release. At that time there was no internet and no fancy author website, so I just read Flood and many of his subsequent novels, without knowing anything about the author apart from what was written on the blurb of the books (which I still have): "Andrew Vachss is an acknowledged expert in the USA on juvenile delinquency and child abuse. Before becoming an attorney specialising in the abuse of children, he had worked variously as a probation officer, fruit picker, furniture mover, cab driver, credit collection agent, gambler, advertising copywriter and photographer."

The main character in Flood, and subsequent novels, is Burke, who lives under the radar in New York, operating in the shady world of child abuse and worse. "Burke is the great scam artist, the never-suckered city poacher and part-time private eye who operates in a world of the utmost depravity. The only risks he takes are the bets he places on horses. Burke has been everywhere, He has seen war. He knows who to let into his life and who to keep out. His speciality is survival."

In a series of six novels, we follow the adventures of Burke as he helps a woman to find the man who raped her and killed her best friend's daughter (Flood); tracks down a child porn ring (Strega); searches for a gang who kidnap and kill prostitutes (Blue Belle); tries to rescue a Flood_tpb3_lg Anotherlife_tp_lg hooker's kidnapped daughter (Hard Candy); looks for runaways (Blossom); and rescues child victims of an urban voodoo cult (Sacrifice). You get the picture. In most of these books there is at least one female "love interest" (to put it politely), and a small circle of regular characters who band together with Burke to solve whichever assignment he has taken on, or who help him in his frequent encounters with danger as he continues his crusade against child abusers, people-traffickers and so on. The only member of this band I recall is an engaging little man called "the Prof", which is not short for Professor but Prophet. Some of the blurb comments: "Burke is a con-man, a survivor, a cynic, and a very dangerous guy. I've not met a character so though and yet so attractive" (David Morrell in The Washington Post). "Move over Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, you've got company" (Cosmopolitan) (!). "Vachhs writes like a cold switchblade…full of extraordinary and powerful imagery (Time Out). "A brutal, compelling style, intricately plotted and driven by sharp, uncompromising street prose which roars with authenticity" (The Guardian).

Although I really liked these books, I think they must have got a bit repetitive after a while. The author may have thought so too, for he wrote two other books and then returned to Burke with Down in the Zero – in which "PI Burke is back for another horrifying journey into the seamy underworld where childhood doesn't exist". This book was written in 1994, and was my last encounter with the author. Checking out his seriously strange website, I see he has written many more in the Burke series in the interim – eleven to be precise, as well as a lot of other things, including appearing on Oprah. The latest Burke novel is called Another Life, and perhaps, on reading its blurb, it is rather strange timing that I have returned here to Andrew Vachss after his books have been sitting on my shelves for (in the earliest cases) more than 20 years:

"Another Life is the end of a journey that began with Flood, Andrew Vachss' first novel featuring career criminal Burke and his Family of Choice. "I didn't set out to write a series. Who but a terminal narcissist would?" the author says of his 1985 debut. But twenty-three years–and seventeen Burke novels–later, Andrew Vachss is finally bringing down the curtain on a series that has been described as "urban nightmares" by Publishers Weekly, and "strong, gritty, gut-bucket stuff" by the Chicago Tribune. Anyone who has felt a part of the family that includes recurring series characters Max, the Mole, Michelle, the Prof, Terry, Clarence, and Mama–characters the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says "are as sharply defined as if they were etched in steel"–will want to be there for the end of the journey, as best-selling, award- winning author Andrew Vachss ties up the loose ends, and sends his Family of Choice off to … Another Life."

There are free excerpts of most of the books, either in e- or audio format, at the author's website, The Zero, as well as a host of other sinister and unsettling material.

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.

Footnote on the V in this post. I found to my shock that there is no V in the royalty-free letter series I have been using to illustrate my crime-fiction alphabet series. Why I did not check the alphabet first to make sure all the letters were there, I don't know. I've therefore had to choose a different font for V, which I find rather disturbing. Normal service will be resumed next time.

3 thoughts on “Alphabet in crime fiction: Andrew Vachss

  1. I read the first couple of these Maxine and then they dropped off my radar – I certainly haven’t read 17 of them! I do remember thinking the Burke character was definitely and original.

  2. Incidentally, the cover pics on the author’s bizarre website are (presumably) the US editions. The UK editions I read back in the 80s and early 90s were far superior, in my opinion. I did buy these books very cheaply in the Macmillan booksale (the UK publisher was the same as the publisher of Nature, the journal I work for). I wonder if, after the last one I read, the UK publisher changed, for I never saw any more in the Macmillan booksale after that – and they have one every few months, for staff, so you can pick up some decent bargains as long as you don’t mind books published by macmillan (Anne Cleeves, Hakan Nesser, Catherine Sampson, Robin Cook -but lots of “un me” ones.) I must not have liked Andrew V enough to follow up after he seemed to vanish from the Macmillan “£1” table back in 1994.

  3. Maxine – Thanks for reminding me of Burke. I admit, I’ve only read one of the books, and I did like it. I think it’s interesting, though, when an author uses “story arcs” in a seriers, so that we follow the characters through several novels. That can certainly be a motivation for reading more of them; that is, of course, if one likes the characters in the first place : ).

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