Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Vachss and Vachss

Updated Below

I’ve been a fan of novelist Andrew Vachss for about a quarter century now, and anyone who knows Vachss’s Burke books will recognize how they’ve influenced my own. I wrote about all this at length in my entry for the International Thriller Writers’ Thriller: 100 Must Reads:
I first heard of Vachss in 1989, when, as a new covert recruit with the CIA, I was reading a lot about crime, violence, and the street. Vachss was mentioned in the bibliography of what remains one of the best self-defense books I’ve ever read, Cheap Shots, Ambushes, and Other Lessons, by Marc “Animal” MacYoung. MacYoung praised Vachss as one of the few novelists who really understood and was able to accurately portray the way the street works: the hits, the scams, the freaks, the whole ugly symbiosis between the criminal world and the civilian. Because MacYoung was clearly a man with his own intimate acquaintance with Vachss’s world, I decided to give Vachss a try...
Today, when people ask me to name some of my literary influences, Vachss is always on the shortlist. He’s the author who opened my eyes to the dramatic possibilities of dropping fictional characters into nonfictional settings and circumstances. He awakened a latent love of clipped dialogue and bleak prose. He implicitly instructed me on how to make the bad guy good: understand him profoundly, make sure that beneath his dark carapace lie certain core qualities the reader can respect and even admire, drop him into a world whose moral palette consists only of the bleakest shades of gray, and populate that world with people even worse than he.
Fast forward to this summer, when I read Vachss’s excellent latest novel, SignWave, his second book about Dell, a former French legionnaire and contract killer. I meant to write a review, but kept getting distracted by other books, including an older Vachss entry called A Bomb Built in Hell that for whatever reason I hadn’t heard of until I was online looking for a link for SignWave. So of course I had to get that one (Phil Gigante/Andrew Vachss is one of the great audiobook combinations of all time, up there with Blair Brown/Isabel Allende and James Ellroy/Craig Wasson).

And then in the course of research for the novel I’m working on now, I came across a book by Vachss’s wife Alice Vachss: Sex Crimes: Ten Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators. It blew me away. And I thought, the hell with it, I’m just going to do a post on both Vachsses. So here we are.

Okay, Dell first. The structure of SignWave was unusual, in that the villain is off-screen for most of the book and the real pleasure is in Dell’s meticulous preparations for his hits and in his relationship and repartee with his wife, Dolly, who’s as tough as he is, albeit not as adept with violence. And the plot was something of a departure, as well. Like the novelist himself, Vachss’s characters are almost always focused on the welfare of children—protecting them from human predators when possible; avenging them otherwise. But here, the threat was to Dolly. Not a good idea to be a threat to Dell’s wife, given the way the man solves problems. And indeed, his solution was a pleasure, as was the revelation it led to in the last paragraph of the book. Now I’m hoping for a third Dell book—and more.

Now, A Bomb Built in Hell. Assassin Wesley was one of my favorite characters from the early Burke books—maybe my very favorite (though the Mole was pretty awesome, too). So stumbling across this Wesley book—and an origin story, too!—was a great surprise. Wesley is a relatively peripheral character in the early Burke books—mysterious, feared, respected, and legendarily lethal. In other words, not an easy character to do justice to in an origin story. But this one completely delivered: Wesley’s experience in war and demonstrable ease with killing, even outside the rules of engagement; his mentorship in prison at the hands of a Mafioso lifer; his emergence as an unstoppable and increasingly uncontrollable contract killer.

There were bonuses, too: Vachss’s prescient observations about publishing in the foreword; the way the story was integrated with and prefigured elements of the early Burke books. I’ve missed Wesley, and it was great to join him on one last, wild ride.

Finally, Sex Crimes. This is a harrowing account of Alice Vachss’s decade as chief of the Special Victims Bureau in the Queens (New York) District Attorney’s office—harrowing not just because of the horrible crimes Vachss prosecuted, but also because of the politics and bullshit that hindered her efforts. Vachss built the Queens SVB into a force feared by rapists and child molesters, and then lost an epic battle to save the bureau from politics. The story is nonfiction that reads like a thriller: high stakes, a lone hero, a powerful villain (more than one, in fact).

I came away from the book in awe of the stakes a prosecutor like Vachss faces. If I have less than my best day, the writing won’t be what I had aimed for—and the next day I get to make it better. If a sex crimes prosecutor fails, a rapist goes free—a horrible twist of the knife to his previous victims, and a likely guarantee of future victims, as well.

There is so much I could quote from Sex Crimes, but maybe I’ll just go with this from the afterword, regarding the collaborators of the book’s title:

We have allowed sex crimes to be the one area of criminality where we judge the offense not by the perpetrator but by the victim…
Collaboration is a hate crime. When a jury in Florida acquits because the victim was not wearing underpants, when a grand jury in Texas refuses to indict because an AIDS-fearing victim begged the rapist to use a condom, when a judge in Manhattan imposes a lenient sentence because the rape of a retarded, previously victimized teenager wasn’t “violent,” when an appellate defense attorney vilifies a young woman on national TV for the “crime” of having successfully prosecuted a rape complaint, when a judge in Wisconsin calls a five-year-old “seductive,”—all that is collaboration, and it is antipathy toward victims so virulent that it subjects us all to risk.
Vachss’s thoughts on the causes and consequences of collaboration—on why society tolerates rapists in a way it doesn’t tolerate, say armed robbery—are as thought-provoking as they are sobering.

Reading Vachss’s tough, clipped, no-nonsense prose, I realized I’m not the only writer her husband has influenced. And I enjoyed the periodic aside hinting at the supportive relationship between these two warriors on behalf of the powerless. During one of Alice’s toughest battles with the politicians intent on dismantling the SVB, Andrew took to leaving her notes here and there, including this one referring to one of Alice’s office enemies, who he called the toad:

If your eye is on the sky
you may crunch the toad in the road—
which is how we measure progress.
If you love the Burke books, you know the Prof is smiling somewhere.

Update: Someone just pointed out on Facebook that SignWave is the third Dell book, not the second. Somehow I missed AfterShock, the first, and thought SignWave was the second after ShockWave. Well, much as I hate screwing up like that, here its good news...means I have another Dell book to read.


Unknown said...

It was Burke (Mr. Vachss' serial protagonist)Who helped me recognize that I'd transcended my own horrors; I never passed it along. I will pull a Burke novel out and read it if my buttons get pushed by something, because Burke pushes back in a way I choose to eschew. I love the way that Burke is driven; the pain never goes away; I can follow Burke rather than take point; he'd have my 6.

"How I Roll" is another great novel; hell, they are all great.

Adam said...

In Alice Vachss' book, Sex Crimes, she changed the names of all the collaborators she was writing about. The dust jacket to her book, however, reproduced actual news clippings about the cases in question. It was far from difficult to match the real names given in the articles to the fakes in the pages in between. I suspect Andrew had a hand in that...

Unknown said...

Not surprised they are a couple, Burke was in love with Wolfe.

TimBo said...

I've now read all the Dell books and all but two of the Burke novels. They're fun to read. Thanks for introducing them to me. My only complaint is that they're not as good as your novels.

Unknown said...

I read Vachss and enjoyed Burke and the people around him. And have now read most if not all of your books. So what a pleasant surprise to suddenly find the connection. On an aside: only when I'm reading a really good story I will suddenly stop and do some research on the internet. In this case because "sex crimes" was mentioned in Livia Lone.

So, all the connections made and a very happy reader indeed.

Amsterdam Assasssin Suspense Fiction said...

As a writer of suspense fictioin with a female assassin as the protagonist (currently working on the fifth novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series), I enjoyed Vachss' Burke novels and his short stories (Shella, A Bomb Built in Hell, the Cross stories), so I'm glad to hear he published more novels.

Also, as an instructor in Pre-Conflict Control, I follow MacYoung's blog/website, but I had overlooked the book you mentioned - something remedied immediately.

Lastly , I've enjoyed your John Rain novels and I'll be sure to look into your Liva Lone novel(s).

Love your blog, keep it going!