Jan 09

Crime Writers: Andrew Vachss

The Brown Wedge8 comments • 370 views

Vachss is a unique writer. Most of his novels centre on a man named Burke, someone far enough beyond the underworld that they don’t know he exists. He makes a living ripping off child porn fans and wannabe mercenaries, and will take a PIish case if it grabs his interest: basically this means if it involves abuse of children. Vachss himself is a lawyer specialising in such cases, a recognised expert on the subject, and his all-encompassing hatred and understanding of abusers makes for often heavy going. He also understands the victims, the effects it has one them. He’s not remotely part of the legal establishment, with no interest in convicting people – he wouldn’t consider getting someone arrested instead of killing them. Obviously many crime writers hate their villains, but none of them despise them like Vachss does.

So there are realist elements of the grimmest sort, but the good guys edge towards the superheroic – it’s no wonder he tried his hand at a Batman novel. Burke’s best friend is the world’s greatest martial artist, a huge mute Tibetan, Silent Max; there’s also the Mole, a Jewish scientific genius living beneath a junkyard surrounded by a pack of vicious dogs, constantly working to catch or punish Nazis; and Prof, the midget who schooled Burke in his days in prison. We get exciting and dramatic adventure, and lots of strong characters, but he rarely neglects to give us villains we can really hate – almost too much to bear, at times.

The Burke series is fantastic, if tending to the repetitive if you read too many too quickly, but his short stories are often astonishingly biting, sharp and intense, especially some of the very, very short ones. He takes you inside the types of mind you don’t even want to know exist, let alone experience. He’s not an easy read, but he’s also like almost no one else I’ve read – I guess if I had to draw parallels, there is a little James Lee Burke in the scariness of some of his bad guys, some of Jim Thompson’s beyond-bleak view of humanity (he’s on my series list too), something of the reckless brutality of Pahlaniuk at his least civilised or TV prison drama Oz. Not someone you can read a lot of the time, and I understand if some wouldn’t even fancy sampling him, but I love him.


  1. 1
    Martin Skidmore on 26 Jan 2009 #

    The posting interface has changed slightly and I seem to no longer be able to make this part of a series, which is a shame.

  2. 2
    admin on 26 Jan 2009 #

    it changed at almost exactly the point you posted this! i thought all was quiet here – my apologies.

    Yes you can still make it part of a series – there is still a ‘series’ panel on the write/edit page. You may need to go back to the first article and put it in the series too – as i fiddled with the series format too, and with only one article in the series at the time, I may have missed it in the transition.

    UPDATE: i added the posts to a series

  3. 3
    Martin Skidmore on 27 Jan 2009 #

    Thanks, Alan – or whoever else that is. (I don’t know how much of a series this or the SF one will be – not big numbers so far, nor lots of comments.)

  4. 4
    DV on 30 Jan 2009 #

    I’ve never read anything by Vachss (apart from a comic adaptation that might only be inspired by his stories), but he always seems to me a bit tabloid-camp with his “Die paedo scum!” world view. I mean, obviously, I am not saying that paedo scum are lovely people or anything, but it seems like saying endlessly that they are Bad is a rather unsophisticated argument and one that will only get us so far.

  5. 5
    Martin Skidmore on 7 Feb 2009 #

    He’s really nothing like that. He is a criminal lawyer specialising in crimes against children, and a recognised expert on child abuse. His understanding is unflinching and deep, and that comes over in the fiction. He’s very good on the breadth of the bad effects such abuse has, which I think is not discussed with any intelligence or knowledge often enough.

  6. 6
    Ken Clark on 12 Mar 2009 #

    I’ve read almost everything Vachss has written (novels) but cannot understand why he refers to animals with the personal pronoun “who” and people with the demonstrative adjective “that”.
    Can you explain this?
    With his impressive formal education it seems that he could employ correct English.

  7. 7
    Martin Skidmore on 12 Mar 2009 #

    I don’t know, but I doubt it is simply grammatical incompetence. Does he always use ‘that’ for people? I was wondering if he used ‘who’ for people he, or Burke, respects, and ‘that’ for everyone else, or anything along those lines. I suspect the use of ‘who’ for anumals is deliberate, doing something to personify them. We often use personal pronouns for them, after all, he and she and so on, rather than it, so ‘who’ is probably arguable.

  8. 8
    Tom on 12 Mar 2009 #


Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page