Every review I’ve seen of one of Andrew Vachss’ novels talks a lot about the man first. It’s similar to the way James Ellroy is treated in reviews, as though the man is more important than the literature. Certainly both have seen and been involved of things most people only see touched on in newspapers, and it’s hard not to be astonished by either. Andrew Vachss is a lawyer specialising in prosecuting child abuse cases, and his writing funds his work. He has his own Web site at www.vachss.com, and you can find out more about his life and legal practice there. Vachss freely admits that he writes fiction because he wants to raise people’s awareness of what’s going on and he’ll reach a wider audience with fiction.
Burke, Vachss’ main character returns in this novel. This time he’s been asked to deliver a ransom and collect a child who’s been missing for a decade. It’s a set-up, and Burke is severely wounded and his dog – probably the being he’s closest to – is shot. His band of misfit friends help him recover and cover his tracks, and he sets off to track down the parents of the missing child and work out what’s going on, discover who could want him dead that badly. This leads him on to a strange collaboration between neo-nazis and paedophiles trying to buy their own island and set up their own state. (While this may sound fanciful, when Vachss wrote Strega about paedophiles using modems to send one another kiddie porn back in 1987, he was criticised for being unrealistic. The man knows what he’s writing about.)
Because of the author’s background and stated reason for writing I was wary when I began reading this novel. How exploitative would it be? Obviously Vachss isn’t going to write to titillate his readers, but the subject area he focusses on in his writing – child abuse – can never be less than shocking. In truth, there’s less exploitation and graphic detail here than you’ll find in many other books, and no depiction of sexual abuse at all. The subtle hints are enough. This is refreshing – all too often crime novels have a villain who mistreats his victims, most frequently women, and his actions are depicted, almost for the reader to share and enjoy. James Patterson’s Kiss The Girls is an example that springs immediately to mind. Vachss avoids this trap all together.
As for violence, well, Dead And Gone is violent, but you expect that from hard boiled crime fiction. It’s certainly no more so than Ellroy, Chester Himes or Joe Lansdale.
Where this novel falls over slightly is in the characters. If you’ve read the other Burke novels you’ll get a fuller picture of the minor ones, but if you haven’t, you only get fleeting glances of them in this, which is a shame. Burke himself is an odd character. His overall lack of sympathy is hard to like. There’s no real humanity to get a grip on; almost all his emotions are negative ones (and he’s softened up compared to the Burke of the earlier books). Even his grief for his pet is translated into rage. This is in line with a lot of what Vachss has seen in some adult survivors of child abuse, but however real it is, it still gives the book an icy core. You’re not supposed to like this man. This novel is not designed to entertain. Were it not for minor characters like Gem, the Cambodian woman working with Burke, this novel would be unreadable.
The other slight hiccup is the ending. Only very bad fictional villains feel the need to explain their convoluted plans to the heroes. Okay, in this novel the explanation serves a purpose, but it’s still a bit tedious, and a better way of ending the novel and explaining what was going on could have been found.
This isn’t a bad book, but as a work of fiction it’s not at the top of the hard-boiled crime tree. The prose is workmanlike, the plot straightforward, the characters (just about) do the business. The Burke novels are no LA Quartet. It’s possible that if it had been written by an average bloke, most people wouldn’t give it a second glance. Given his reasons for writing, Vachss probably doesn’t care about that.