By Andrew Vachss
Reviewed by Chad Michael Supp (5/98)
In the genre of hardboiled mystery there is the phenomenon of an author's real life nearly overshadowing the fictitious adventures of his characters (ex: anyone who has read a bio on James Ellroy knows that he is coming from a very different place). The most outstanding example of this phenomenon is Andrew Vachss. The jacket sleeve to his latest novel, SAFE HOUSE, details an impressive resume of former lives, including: federal investigator, social caseworker, labor organizer, and director of a maximum security prison for youthful offenders. Currently Vachss' primary function in life is served as a lawyer in private practice, representing children and youths exclusively, and fighting to protect them from "the beast" that is pervasive abuse and neglect.
Vachss has described himself "not as a 'writer', but as a soldier in the only 'Holy War' worthy of the name". He has also been quoted saying "Writing isn't my work, it's an organic extension of that work. I may not be a good writer, but I write for a good reason".
I beg to differ with Mr. Vachss. I do not dispute his reasons for one second, but the man truly is a gifted writer. And SAFE HOUSE is the proof.
Burke is the protagonist of Vachss' continuing series of mysteries. He is a hardcore career criminal who grew up with the state of New York as his primary caregiver. Now he uses his various talents and, shall we say, moral flexibility as a man-for-hire, specializing in the protection of the innocent from dangerous sociopathic predators.
In SAFE HOUSE, the predators are stalkers.
When the first five pages of the novel open with Burke receiving oral homage from a married woman and preaching about the finer details of prison sex: "Rape is rape...it's not gay. It's not straight. I don't give a g__damn how people f__k, long as it's what they want to do...", you know this is going to be a "get your hands dirty" trip to the dark side of town.
It's not just married women Burke finds himself "in bed" with in SAFE HOUSE. The supporting characters include: old prison pals, neo-nazis, government agents, stalkers, and a network of mysterious vigilantes who run safe houses. When Hercules, an ex-con to whom Burke owes his life, seeks help after turning a muscle job on a stalker into murder, Burke lands in a pit full of players.
Crystal Beth is the boss of the safe house network, a child of hippies turned street warrior, dedicated to protecting the lives of women who are being victimized by stalkers. She calls it her "purpose." Of course Crystal Beth has a stalker of her own - a mysterious man named Pryce, who may or may not be a government agent. Pryce is threatening Crystal Beth's operation in order to protect one of the stalkers, who also happens to be a neo-nazi, a porn store proprietor, and Pryce's informant. Throw in a crusading lawyer named Wolfe (reads a lot like a female version of the author himself), a horny Jewish American Princess named Vyra, and Burke's usual "family" (playing like "the A-Team" meets "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest") and the reader needs a flow chart to keep track of all the characters and how they relate to each other. Fortunately, Vachss spots the potential confusion a third of the way into the novel and provides a clever scene between Burke and his "muscle", Max the Silent (a very large, deaf/mute Mongolian from Tibet), making origami figurines representing each character and placing them in groups to help flush out the plot. Trust me - it helps.
The streamlined prose and rapid-fire dialogue move the action from scene to scene at a brisk pace, and aside from Vachss' occasional (and awkward) product placements and pitches, there are few distractions from the plot.
Vachss plugs everything from Geof Darrow comics, to blues records (this book actually has a soundtrack), to the mother-of-all bookstore chains: Barnes & Noble. Although Vachss tries to work them into the plot seamlessly, the plugs take you right out of the scene and the characters.
The only other strange turn in the action was near the end, when Burke sends in his own informant to infiltrate the neo-nazis. Just when Burke's boy is in place and it looks like we are in for some "deep cover" action, Vachss sidetracks and sends Burke on a series of interviews with victims of stalkers, pedophiles, internet predators and the rest of Vachss' favorite targets. The interviews are interesting (especially one with a black woman who rants about the downside of terms like "battered woman's syndrome." ("Sooner or later, they gonna find him. Right where I left his dead ass. You take your f___ing syndrome, honey. Me, I'm taking the Greyhound."), but I couldn't wait to get back to the real action.
The final action sequences read fast and end with the reader satisfied and slightly out of breath. The grit of the story sticks and you may find yourself seeking out a sink to wash your hands. When finished reading Vachss, I always replay the story in my head and come to frightening conclusions about his work. His stories take root in "Ground Zero" and read as real as clippings from today's newspaper. As the author himself has said, "If I had one wish, it would be that the material from which I draw my novels was 'fictional'."
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