No Deals, Mr. Brown

An Overview of Andrew Vachss’ Burke Series

I made a deal with Dwight Brown about six months ago. Dwight does typing for Mark Ziesing sometimes and reads even faster than I do. We’re always looking for great authors that the other hasn’t tried yet. The deal was that in exchange for Dwight reading James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, I would read Flood (or any other Burke novel) by Andrew Vachss. Since our reading tastes frequently coincide, these kind of deals are usually a win-win situation. The reason we make these kind of deals is not to get someone interested in a book; the deal is to get the person to actually read it. Dwight and I are probably like a lot of you–we buy too many books from Ziesing because of the hard-luck stories he gives us over the phone, but never have the time to read the damn things.

Dwight read Ellroy within the month, although he chose to read Blood on the Moon or some other book that I still have yet to get to. Six months later, I had still to read the Vachss and I had promised twice now to do “Debulking the Mystery” for Ziesing (not to mention the reasons behind declaring myself a “Horror Free Zone”). But I was feeling guilty–and I’ve known Dwight longer. So, instead of keeping one promise, I kept the other.

I read Flood, Strega, Blue Belle, and Hard Candy in a three-day period, and I would have continued until I finished Vachss’ latest, Sacrifice, except that I didn’t have a copy of the fifth novel, Blossom. These are quick-paced, gripping novels that, although a complete story in every book, form a continuous narrative. Each book picks up where the book before left off, so much so that the falling action of Blue Belle is the introduction to Hard Candy.

Burke is an ex-con private investigator without a license in New York City. He has no first name– unless you want to call him Baby Boy, and I wouldn’t–and his parents were the State. Burke’s a survivor, and he’s survived up until the action that takes place in the novels by being a “stand-up” guy, i.e., when the cops came down, Burke didn’t “roll-over” and play State’s evidence. Because he doesn’t get many clients, Burke runs scams on the “freaks” to make his scratch. He learned long ago that citizens call the police; freaks don’t. And the one type of freak that really drives Burke crazy is a child molester.

This highly-developed outlaw code of ethics is quite similar to that of Spenser in Robert B. Parker’s novels, if a little farther out in the grey areas of the law. Burke’s ethics have gained him a certain notoriety and a number of friends. Friends like: Max the Silent, “the life-taking, widow-making silent wind of death.” Mama Wong, Chinese restauranteur and safe-house. Michelle, a transsexual prostitute. Mole, an introverted Nazi-hunter who lives underneath a junkyard. Prof, short for Professor or Prophet, depending on how you want to take it.

The titles of the first four books reference the other major aspect of Burke’s life: women. Each book, and each woman, takes Burke out of his safe routine and challenges him to confront another dark aspect of the City. Things like kiddie-porn, a ghost-van dealing death to young white prostitutes, a death-junkie who wants to challenge Max, child-abusers, and fathers who commit incest.

The description sounds like a perverted Doc Savage; surrounded by his team, each with their own special abilities, the hero tries to confront and overcome another deadly villain. But Vachss has something that “Kenneth Robeson” (actually Lester Dent and other house writers) never had: authenticity.

Andrew Vachss is an attorney in private practice, specializing in criminal and juvenile defense. He’s also an adamant fighter against child-abuse, both in his life and in his novels. Burke’s edge comes from Vachss’ own observations about the seedy side of New York, and his contact with it.

There are things that I learned in every book. Instruction on how to choose a horse in a race. A way to launder money. How to create a new identity, and cover your tracks. Dog-training. What an ultimate taxi-cab would be like.

Not everything is perfect, though. The first book, Flood, is by far the best and the most compact, even though it’s the longest. In succeeding books, Vachss’ style has become this ultimate short chop to the eyes–each scene a new chapter, each paragraph less than seven sentences, each sentence less than seven words. Trying to show the change in Burke’s character, Vachss is moving away from the redeeming warmth and full description of the first book. I can understand the effect, but I do hope that Vachss (and Burke) can break out of it soon.

I recommend the books, and as soon as I find Blossom, I’m going to finish off the series and patiently wait for Vachss to write more. Until then, I’ll be reading The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential.

[Finished 1997]

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