Vachss, Andrew 1942-
Vachss, Andrew 1942-
(Andrew H. Vachss, Andrew Henry Vachss)
PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "Vax"; born October 19, 1942, in New York, NY; son of Bernard and Geraldine (Mattus) Vachss; married Alice (an attorney and writer). Education: Case Western Reserve University, B.A., 1965; New England School of Law, J.D. (magna cum laude), 1975.
CAREER: Lawyer and writer. U.S. Public Health Service in Ohio, field interviewer and investigator for Task Force on Eradication of Syphilis, 1965–66; Department of Social Services, New York, NY, began as caseworker, became unit supervisor of multi-problem ghetto casework team, 1966–69; Community Development Foundation, Norwalk, CT, field coordinator in Biafra, 1969, urban coordinator, 1970; Calumet Community Congress, Lake County, IN, organizer and coordinator, 1970–71; Uptown Community Organization, Chicago, IL, director, 1971; Libra, Inc., Cambridge, MA, director, 1971; Medfield-Norfolk Prison Project, Medfield, MA, deputy director, 1971–72; Department of Youth Services, Boston, MA, project director and director of Intensive Treatment Unit (AN-DROS II), both 1972–73; Advocacy Associates, New York and New Jersey, director, 1973–75; Crime Control Coordinator's Office, Yonkers, NY, planner and analyst, 1974–75; City Juvenile Justice Planning Project, New York, director, 1975–85; attorney in private practice, 1976–. Adjunct professor at College of New Resources, 1980–81; lecturer at Child Welfare League of America, Columbia University School of Social Work, Eastern Regional Conference on Abuse and Multiple Personality, Dominion Hospital, Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, Law Guardian Training Program—New York State Ninth Judicial District, Mississippi Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, National Association of Counsel for Children, National Children's Advocacy Center, New Hampshire Department of Corrections, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, St. Luke's Hospital Child Protection Center, U.S. Campaign to End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT), and others.
MEMBER: PEN American Center, Writers Guild of America, Child Trauma Academy, Protect PAC.
AWARDS, HONORS: Industrial Areas Foundation Training Institute fellow, 1970–71; West Annual Hornbook Student Award (first-in-class rank), 1973; Amos L. Taylor Graduation Award for Scholastic Excellence, New England School of Law, 1975; fellow of John Hay Whitney Foundation, 1976–77; Grand Prix de Lit-terature Policiere, and Falcon Award, Maltese Falcon Society (Japan), both 1988, both for Strega; Deutschen Krimi Preis, 1989, for Flood; Raymond Chandler Award, Giurìa a Noir in Festival (Courmayeur, Italy), 2000, for body of work; Harvey J. Houck, Jr., Award, Justice for Children, for national child advocacy; received American Jurisprudence Awards for criminal law, contracts, domestic relations, and administrative law.
Flood, Donald I. Fine (New York, NY), 1985.
Strega, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
Blue Belle, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
Hard Candy, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
Blossom, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.
Sacrifice, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
Shella, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
Down in the Zero, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
Footsteps of the Hawk, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
Batman: The Ultimate Evil (based on the character created by Bob Kane), Warner (New York, NY), 1995.
False Allegations, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
Safe House, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
Choice of Evil, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
Dead and Gone, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Pain Management, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
Only Child: A Burke Novel, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
The Getaway Man, Vintage (New York, NY), 2003.
Down Here, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Two Trains Running, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2005.
Mask Market, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2006.
(Under name Andrew H. Vachss) The Life-Style Violent Juvenile: The Secure-Treatment Approach, Lexington (Lexington, MA), 1979.
Hard Looks: Adapted Stories (graphic novel series), Dark Horse (Milwaukie, OR), 1992, second edition (with new stories), 1996, updated edition (with new stories), 2002.
Another Chance to Get It Right (illustrated collection of prose-poem essays, allegories, and parables), Dark Horse (Milwaukie, OR), 1993, updated edition, 2003.
Born Bad: Stories, Vintage (New York, NY), 1994.
Predator: Race War, Dark Horse (Milwaukie, OR), 1995.
Everybody Pays: Stories, Vintage (New York, NY), 1999.
Also author of The Child Abuse-Delinquency Connection: A Lawyer's View, 1989. Author of plays, including Placebo, 1991, Warlord, 1992, and Replay, 1994. Contributor of serialized novel, Bomb Built in Hell, to Amazon.com, 2000; contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Armchair Detective, A Matter of Crime, Esquire, and Playboy; contributor to periodicals, including ABA Journal, Journal of Psychohistory, New England Law Review, New York Times, and Observer (London, England); contributing editor to Parade magazine. Also served as editor-in-chief of the New England Law Review, 1974–75.
Also author of comic series, including Hard Looks, Dark Horse (Milwaukie, OR), 1992–93, Underground, Dark Horse (Milwaukie, OR), 1994, and (with James Colbert) Cross, Dark Horse (Milwaukie, OR), 1995–96.
SIDELIGHTS: Since the publication of his first novel, Flood, Andrew Vachss has emerged as a popular writer of "hard-boiled" or so-called "neo-noir" detective stories. His novels and stories describe—in often uncomfortable detail—the seediest, most amoral quadrants of New York City, where "the streets are worse than mean, they're positively depraved," as Washington Post Book World contributor Michael Dirda put it. Vachss's "heroes" often subscribe to the same questionable ethics as his villains; they are quick to circumvent the law, they trust nobody outside their tiny circle of friends, and they mete out violent, vigilante-style "justice." In Booklist, Wes Lukowsky wrote: "Vachss creates a gun-metal gray, paranoid milieu where … to be mainstream is to be compromised, and where children and women are always—yes, always—at risk."
Much of Vachss's popularity stems from his favorite protagonist, the unlicensed private detective known only as Burke. An ex-con, Burke makes his living selling fake I.D.'s and doing dirty work for wealthy clients. He has equipped his office/apartment with a nigh-impenetrable security system (including, at the beginning of the series, a 140-pound mastiff named Pansy), and has outfitted his car with forty thousand dollars worth of gadgetry—making it, in Vachss's words, "the ultimate NYC taxicab." Burke surrounds himself with a bizarre cast of supporting characters: his sometimes informant, sometimes secretary Michelle, a transsexual hooker who, over the course of the series, gets a sex-change operation; a deaf master of martial arts, Max the Silent, whom Burke often calls upon for additional muscle; the Mole, a computer and electronics wizard who lives in a tidy apartment beneath a junkyard; and a street-and world-wise beggar called "Prof"—a moniker that could be short for either Professor or Prophet. On occasion, Burke is lured into service as a private investigator, often by a beautiful femme fatale, and usually to investigate a case of child abuse or exploitation. Having appeared in more than a dozen Vachss novels, the enigmatic Burke "helps all those who have a shred of goodness in them, and he helps destroy the irredeemably evil," to quote a critic in Kirkus Reviews. The reviewer went on to style Burke as "one of the most fascinating male characters in crime fiction."
New York Times Book Review critic Newgate Callendar regarded Burke's cases as brutal enough to "make Mickey Spillane's exploits read like the minutes of a Harvard alumni meeting, class of 1920." Another characteristic that differentiates the Burke series from others in the genre is that the characters change, and sometimes die, over the course of the series. Burke has been described by David Morrell in the Washington Post Book World as "a con-man, a survivor, a cynic, a repressed romantic and a very dangerous guy," and he admitted that Burke's "values are higher than those of many so-called respectable citizens."
In addition to featuring a mold-breaking protagonist, Vachss's novels have been praised for the sheer quality of writing within. "There is great power in Vachss's language," noted Detroit News critic James W. Hall, "coming from hypnotic cadences of speech, flashbulb-in-your-face realism and the elliptical string of simple declarative sentences describing this sleazy yet morally tricky universe." In Charles L.P. Silet's Talking Murder: Interviews with Twenty Mystery Writers, Walter Mosley commented: "In crime fiction, I've read lots of people. [This includes] Vachss, who I adore, because I think he is so deeply committed to what he believes in. I feel the heart coming through it, and I compare him to Dickens."
Some critics, however, have found fault in Vachss's earlier mysteries. For example, New York Times Book Review contributor Marilyn Stasio thought his characters were "overdrawn to comic-book scale." Stasio, however, amended her opinion in later reviews, noting Vachss's growth as a writer by calling The Getaway Man "a mesmerizing character study." Other reviewers have identified the style in Vachss's early novels as reminiscent of writers such as Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker.
A life-defining antipathy to child abusers has often informed Vachss's fiction since its inception. Sex crimes against children form plot points in his books, and the subject matter is depicted in all its graphic horrors. Though the author admits this to be an unpleasant topic, it is one with which he is all too familiar. As a social worker, a director of a maximum-security juvenile institution, and later a children's rights lawyer, Vachss has had an entire career to observe the consequences of child exploitation and abuse. "All my work has involved children in one form or another," Vachss once told CA. "My current law practice is exclusively devoted to children and youth…. My past experience makes me a far better advocate for children, and the money from writing helps to finance the representation of kids who can hardly pay the going rate." He later told CA: "Writing isn't my profession, it's merely an organic extension of my real work—a way of preaching my own particular gospel to a wider audience. I never miss an opportunity to go Trojan Horsing-around in a new arena, and I'm always looking for a bigger jury than I'd find in a courtroom."
Because of his eagerness to address such issues, some critics have labeled Vachss "a sensationalist" and his work "too explicit"—labels the author considers unwarranted. He told CA: "My novels are not 'ripped from today's headlines' but precede those headlines with ground-zero reporting that others have described as 'investigative novels.'" For example, his 1988 novel Blue Belle explores the black-market practice of selling human organs; this same practice was reported in the New York Daily News in November, 1993—five years after the publication of Vachss's book. "Many critics responded [to Blue Belle] by saying I had a 'fevered imagination,'" he said. As to critics' common accusation that his books are filled with violence and explicit sex, Vachss replied: "My writing often functions as a 'psychiatric mirror,' revealing more about those who respond to it than about the author."
Vachss rarely departs from writing about Burke, preferring to change the character's location and even his physical appearance to give the character new challenges. Occasionally Vachss does stray, however. His 2003 novel The Getaway Man is also a noir thriller in the pulp model, so much so that it was printed as a paperback original. The hero of The Getaway Man is an un-reformed graduate of reform school who works as a driver for a stick-up crew. "I wanted to do something that happened in real time almost, where you can actually engage with the character," Vachss told Publishers Weekly contributor Adam Dunn. "People who identify with Burke identify with some things that he does, but not with him directly. But I wanted to write a novel—that I knew people would call a thriller or something else—that actually goes back to the days when novels appeared in that form. Many novels in which crimes were committed were about larger things. That was my goal with this." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that although The Getaway Man "delivers the guilty pleasure of a dime novel," Vachss still "suffuses his story with compassion for children and a razor-sharp outrage at their abusers." Booklist contributor Keir Graff noted that the novel "should be a pleasant detour for both Vachss followers and fans of the genre."
Vachss's stories take readers "not simply into the mean streets, but into a subterranean nightmare world as compelling and morally challenging as any in the best crime fiction today," Hall commented. "They make us squirm, but we need to squirm. We are better for it." In Booklist, Lukowsky called the Burke novels "the darkest noir in the genre," but concluded that Vachss "has a loyal cadre of readers who relish their sojourns into the darkness." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Vachss "an author who clearly knows his terrain and whose sympathy for the truly innocent—the children—is unstinting."
Vachss also set Burke and his adventures aside for Hard Looks: Adapted Stories, in which the author presents short crime stories, many with surprise endings that bring forth a final justice or injustice. The illustrated stories, which were adapted from a ten-issue comic book series published in the 1990s, include black-and-white artwork from a variety of artists. "The book can inspire both outrage at inhumanity and brutality and admiration for Vachss's … writing," wrote Steve Raiteri in the Library Journal. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that the tales reside in "an ethical gray area" and added: "While highlighting the law's ambiguities, Vachss also teases out lessons and consequences for his characters, usually in the form of unexpected endings."
Burke, along with most of his cohorts, returns in Down Here, this time working on the case of a female federal prosecutor framed for the attempted murder of a sex offender she sent to jail but released on a technicality. When Burke finds that the man is under federal protection, he sets out to prove the man is lying and find which of his many enemies, including former victims, really tried to kill him. Along the way, Burke ingratiates himself with the sex offender's sister as part of the investigation but soon finds the growing relationship may have to do with more than business. "For the Burke fan, plot becomes almost secondary to the immersion into Vachss's thrillingly seductive downtown Manhattan shadow land," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Describing the novel as "another carefully crafted descent into a hellish environment," Booklist contributor Lukowsky also commended the author's ability "to keep each novel unique and engaging."
Vachss focuses on the 1959 Southern mill town of Locke City in his stand-alone novel Two Trains Running. The story revolves around efforts by the Mafia to move in on the town's vice operations, which are run by locals who, despite their unsophisticated outward appearance, run a smooth operation. When cold-blooded killer Walker Dett is hired by the local gang's leader, wheelchair-bound Royal Beaumont, to take care of the situation with the Mob, the state of affairs becomes more complicated as other gangs enter the scene, as well as black militants and a group seeking to fix the election of John F. Kennedy as president. Keir Graff, writing in Booklist, noted that what starts out as "great, pulpy microcosm suddenly goes macro." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that the author "explore[s] the teeming, clannish, race-driven underside of American politics." The reviewer went on to note: "The pace is good and the plot is riveting." Thomas L. Kilpatrick, writing in the Library Journal, commented that the "book will attract Vachss devotees and crime fiction aficionados alike."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI) 1996.
Silet, Charles L. P., Talking Murder: Interviews with Twenty Mystery Writers, Ontario Review Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Advocate, June 8, 1999, Dave Ford, "Evil Choices, Hard Choices," p. 81.
Armchair Detective, winter, 1987, review of Flood, p. 85.
Booklist, February 15, 1998, Wes Lukowsky, review of Safe House, p. 990; April 15, 1999, Wes Lukowsky, review of Choice of Evil, p. 1486; September 15, 1999, review of Everybody Pays: Stories; August, 2001, Wes Lukowsky, review of Pain Management, p. 2053; December 1, 2002, Keir Graff, review of The Getaway Man, p. 629; April 1, 2004, Wes Lukowsky, review of Down Here, p. 1354; May 1, 2005, Keir Graff, review of Two Trains Running, p. 1538.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 6, 2003, Michael Heaton, "Best-Selling Novelist Also a Lawyer Who Fights Child Abuse."
Detroit News, April 10, 1993, James W. Hall, p. D8.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1994, review of Born Bad: Stories.
Library Journal, February 1, 1998, Alice DiNizo, review of Safe House, p. 113; March 1, 2003, Steve Raiteri, review of Hard Looks: Adapted Stories, p. 76; March 1, 2004, Jeff Ayers, review of Down Here, p. 109; July 1, 2005, Thomas L. Kilpatrick, review of Two Trains Running, p. 74.
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August, 1999, Charles de Lint, review of Choice of Evil, p. 42.
New York Times Book Review, May 31, 1987, Newgate Callendar, review of Strega, p. 45; October 9, 1988, Sarah Schulman, review of Blue Belle, p. 41; July 15, 1990, Marilyn Stasio, review of Blossom, p. 26; July 7, 1991, Michael P. Anderson, review of Sacrifice, p. 16; December 19, 1999, Chase Madar, review of Everybody Pays, p. 22; December 10, 2000, Scott Veale, review of Dead and Gone, p. 32; February 9, 2003, Marilyn Stasio, review of The Getaway Man, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly, April 5, 1999, review of Choice of Evil, p. 218; September 13, 1999, review of Everybody Pays, p. 64; July 31, 2000, review of Dead and Gone, p. 66; September 18, 2000, review of A Bomb Built in Hell, p. 44; August 27, 2001, Adam Dunn, "PW Talks with Andrew Vachss," p. 49; August 27, 2001, review of Pain Management, p. 50; September 16, 2002, review of Only Child, p. 51; January 27, 2003, review of The Getaway Man, p. 235; March 17, 2003, Adam Dunn, "Andrew Vachss Trying to Get Away," interview with author, p. 49; May 12, 2003, review of Hard Looks, p. 46; March 1, 2004, review of Down Here, p. 47; May 2, 2005, review of Two Trains Running, p. 173.
Washington Post Book World, September 15, 1985, Michael Dirda, review of Flood, p. 6; April 12, 1987, David Morrell, review of Strega, p. 6.
Andrew Vachss Home Page, http://www.vachss.com (March 1, 2006).