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.

The Brown Wedge   Books