Andrew Vachss – Safe House

One of the things I like about Richard Stark’s Parker novels is the sense of a man taking care, an expert in his craft; also the sense of a world more or less coexisting with the one I know of which I am completely unaware – the criminal underground. Vachss’s Burke (two characters, one name each, both surnames of other crime writers!) makes Parker look fancy-free and slapdash, and his world is as far beneath, as largely invisible to, Parker’s as his is to me.

It’s also a very appealing mix of the real and the fantastic. The grounding in this novel is what’s still termed ‘domestic violence’, and he shows a deep understanding of this – his usual territory, abused children, is not dissimilar, so this doesn’t surprise me. His targets are always child abusers, rapists, Nazis, never ordinary killers let alone routine criminals – since Burke is a professional criminal himself. Vachss is a lawyer, in his other life, specialising in the area of child abuse, and he plainly knows and feels very deeply about it.

On the other hand, Burke’s ‘family of choice’, i.e. the people he gives a damn about, are about as extravagant a cast as Batman’s foes (sadly I’ve not got around to reading any of Vachss’s Batman stories – he might do him superbly), and the climaxes of these stories tend to be very explosive. This would put some off, but for an old comic fan who also likes serious fiction, I find the combination of colourful characters and tough action with deep understanding of psychology, and the engagement with a kind of evil that I understand (unlike that of most fictional murderers and serial killers, say) and that most crime writers don’t touch, completely irresistible.

He writes with sparse and controlled prose, getting into his memorable characters (though his women do follow a bit of a template and convince less than the men) and their thoughts in a compelling way. But the heart is Burke himself: a paranoid with good cause surviving in New York City, as invisible and protected as possible, guarding his identity almost like a Batman. There is a pattern to his novels, and when I read three or four quickly after first reading him, they lost some force, but read less frequently they are a major thrill.