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Prince of Darkness

Andrew Vachss is a man with a mission. As a lawyer he defends the rights of abused children; as a novelist he exposes the seamier side of American society in crime fiction that ranks with Chandler and Hammett.

by Carl Hindmarch
Originally published in Elle, June 1989.

Fiction and reality merge in the world of Andrew Vachss, the only lawyer in New York whose practice is committed solely to the defence of children. The crusading 47-year-old lawyer has a track record that is the envy of his adversaries. What's more, he writes some of the hardest-boiled crime fiction to walk from New York's meanest streets.

Vachss doesn't waste words. It's not just because he's a lawyer, it's more to do with the fact that he has looked at the world and come to a conclusion. "Child abuse is the ultimate abuse of power," he says in his hard-and-fast, sardonic voice, and it's as simple as that. Twenty-five years ago Vachss was working for the US Public Health Service, tracking sexually transmitted diseases across the Midwest. His discovery of children who had been infected by their parents shocked him, and it opened his eyes to the darkest and best kept secret in society: that children are sexually abused in the home.

Since then, he has dedicated his life to the protection of children, although he came to their legal defence via the most protracted of routes. In 1969 he went to Biafra in West Africa to assess whether the millions of dollars of American aid were feeding the starving population or merely fueling the war of independence, but found himself "mostly trying to stay alive and get out of the country." He made it back to America, suffering from malaria, parrot fever and liver damage, and took a succession of different jobs in which he was in firing line of some of society's most reluctant members.

"I'm saving victims rather than attacking the perpetrators... vengeance is a by-product, not a goal."

He worked as a probation officer, a social worker, ran a re-entry programme for ex-cons and a maximum security prison for youth before his body gave up on him. Being almost blind in one eye was not so much an insurance policy as an invitation in the circles Vachss worked in. "It's a class thing," says the man who lost count of the number of ribs he had broken and the times his jaw was wired together. "If a middle-class kid is scared of the school bully he gets his mother to bandage his hand so he can't fight. If you're from a lower economic group and go to school with your hand bandaged the bully just has an easier time beating you up." Vachss went to law school in search of an easier way to earn a living. But he knew then that he only wanted to represent children: "I never wanted to work in, say, real estate. It's boring and to my mind not important."

But by defending young people rather than locking them up, he has traded juvenile violence for the wrath of frustrated pornographers and paedophiles. Vachss receives death threats at his office and bullet holes in his car, and he and his wife live behind security doors, of strict appointments and house-trained guard dogs.

He is a crusader in the true sense of the word—but is not interested in revenge. "I'm saving victims rather than attacking the perpetrators," he says. "The targets of my action may well call it vengeance when they do end up in prison, or lose access to the child, but vengeance is a by-product, not a goal."

The hundreds of cases he's fought and won prove that even if the war is unwinnable, he will win every battle he can. "You can never eliminate predation or perversion, but you can make it harder for people to swim in that pool," he says matter of factly. "When you strip away the rhetoric, that's my aim: to provide more protection for children and greater penalties for those that trespass against them." By saving today's victims he is reducing the number of tomorrow's predators. It's what Vachss would call job satisfaction.

So much for the day job. Four years ago, Vachss wrote Flood, a tough, gritty, urban revenge story whose central character Burke, a private eye who works on both sides of the law, is a Philip Marlowe for the end of the 80s. "I see it as simply repackaging the same material I work with into a form that people will read until the end," says Vachss, who, before his move into crime fiction, wrote a study of juvenile violence but was frustrated by its small academic readership.

In Blue Belle, Vachss' third novel, Burke is contracted by a syndicate of New York pimps to track down a mysterious van which is snatching child prostitutes from the streets and using them in snuff videos. It's a violent story written in stylish bullet-hard prose which sends shivers down your spine and gives you bad dreams at night, but it's part of the same campaign. "I'm writing to anger people, to make them look for answers to questions that perhaps had not occurred to them. If I were to take some of the actual cases I have handled and fictionalise them, they would make you vomit ... I cannot imagine there is anything people will not do." While Vachss meets the same people in court that Burke runs into on the streets, the lawyer is keen to quash any suggestion that his Mr. Hyde is a Rambo-type figure dealing a rougher poetic justice than is available through the courts.

"Burke is a criminal whose main concern is staying alive—I am far more effective than him. All he has ever done is confront, and occasionally kill bad individuals. I do not for one minute fantasise that by killing an individual you wipe out kiddie pornography."

Vachss may not be a head-hunting prosecutor, but when it comes to defending the victims of sexual abuse he certainly counts scalps.

Vachss' single-minded clarity of purpose fuels both his legal work and his fiction. The only difficulty for the writer is toning down the reality to make it acceptable to readers of fiction. The passionate lawyer calmly explains: "If I were to take some of the actual cases I have handled and fictionalise them, they would make you vomit."

While his writing has been hailed as crime fiction to rank alongside that of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the American legal system still cannot make up its mind about Andrew Vachss. "When I want to incarcerate a child abuser I'm a right-winger, but when I recommend a twelve-year-old be sent for treatment rather than to prison because he is the victim of abuse I am a soft left-winger." He doesn't really care for the liberal academic debate and is happy to leave it to the day-time chat shows.

The fact is Vachss gets results. Both in court and in his fiction he makes sure people know the truth about child sex abuse. It's a bitter pill for American society, for any society, to swallow, shaking as it does the family unit, but Vachss doesn't believe in sugaring it. The silence that cloaks child abuse can only protect it. "I already know there is no limit," says the dry courtroom voice. "I cannot image there is anything people will not do. And I wish my books were fiction."


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