Into the Darkest Corners
By Lesley McDowell
Andrew Vachss: think Lee van Cleef crossed with Raymond Chandler, with the dystopian touch of Escape from New York thrown in for good measure. The compulsion to touch down on those post-modern, pop culture references—not without their cliched value, especially in the world of crime writing—is almost irresistible, given both the style of Vachss' writing and its content, as well as his own background. For this is where the real and the fictive cross each other, and in the best tradition of post-modern play, it's hard to see the joins.
Publisher Canongate is launching the first UK publication of one of Vachss' most successful novels to coincide with the launch of its Canongate Crime imprint this month. Safe House, the first in a series of five novels that Canongate plans to publish over the next three years, is a sophisticated, stylish crime-noir, the majority of whose protagonists are marginalised outsiders, headed by the bitter, hard-boiled, career criminal, Burke. The plot is complex (this is NYPD Blue with faster camera work and more jargon—blink and too much has happened already), but basically charts Burke's involvement with a safe house for women under attack from violent partners or stalkers, and the men who are harassing them. It's an involvement that soon leads him into bigger things, namely a neo-Nazi group with plans for another Oklahoma City-style bombing.
Vachss started his professional life as a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases and became a director of a maximum security prison for young offenders, before turning to law, specialising in defending victims of child abuse. The power behind the America's 1993 National Child Protection Act—it was while he was being interviewed on Oprah Winfrey's show that he suggested it—his profile has made him the target of attack on more than one occasion.
Not a man to argue with then, you might think, and his formidable appearance—tall, dark, dressed all in black, with an eye-patch—would tend to confirm it. So what better way to start off than to query some past statements Vachss has made on the subject of writing and his past experiences? Vachss has said that he believes in the "clarity of communicating," suggesting perhaps that his novels have a social and political message to convey, theories he wants to express in fiction.
"They're not theories," he establishes quickly. He also doesn't have the kind of voice you want to argue with too much, especially when it does sound uncannily like the bounty hunter in a Spaghetti Western.
"I can back up what I say," he continues. Although I wasn't really accusing him of saying things that weren't true. Vachss has come up against so much doubt and scepticism in the face of horrifying realities that I suspect he hears accusation even when it isn't really there.
"In my novel Strega (published in 1987), I suggested there was a network of paedophiles trafficking in child pornography, and everyone said: 'What kind of a sick individual do you have to be to make this up?' But it was an investigative novel. I reported on it and printed it up. I wanted to give people information and get them angry." What has now become common knowledge was relatively new when Vachss first exposed it through his fiction, and this has set a pattern in his work.
The link between what Vachss has witnessed, in his capacity as a defence lawyer for child abuse victims as well as a federal investigator, and what appears in his novels, is not so clear-cut however. For one who has spent so much of his life fighting for justice through the institutions, his novels present an apparently different message—that justice is achieved by those on the outside, through their own means, fighting crime on their own terms. Is this a contradiction of everything he has spent his life fighting for?
"My characters are not vigilantes," he insists. "They seek survival, not justice. One of the main characters, Wolfe (a former sex-crimes prosecutor), for instance, is not outside. They work with FBI agents—the justice system may be rejected by them, but all society is rejected by them. They are characters who were used and abused as children, who want nothing to do with society. This is not just to do with justice—they're seeking anonymity."
In Sacrifice, (written in 1991), for instance, Burke uncovers a gang making torture films of young children. He attacks them in a shoot-out and kills a child. This is hardly a message that vigilantism is the answer. He also works for people above ground all the time—they are the justice seekers. Those below are civilians with a pathological hatred for predators. "They're not costumed heroes."
Much about Vachss is uncompromising, particularly his terminology. He has said elsewhere that "predators within a species are not tolerated. They are banished, avoided, or killed," and urges society to follow the example of non-human mammals. It's a powerful message—what stopped him going into politics instead?
"There were three things I wanted to be," he says. "A forensic psychiatrist (which I eliminated because I was told I was best as a diagnostician, rather than treating people), a lawyer, and a journalist. The only way I felt I could effect change was as a lawyer. I didn't have the opening to go into journalism."
What appeals to him most about journalism, he says, is "the direct comment," a reflection of his own fiction perhaps. Vachss' novels are surprisingly voyeurism-free, given their often sexual and violent content, something he is deliberately conscious of when writing. He's also more socially aware than most—racial stereotypes, trite or easy characterisations, and simplistic portraits are avoided in spite of writing in a genre which so often depends on the easily recognisable. Vachss' fiction is crime writing at its most individual and formula-free, edgy and convincing.
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