A Street Smart Savior—Through A Fictional Sleuth
Attorney-Author Andrew Vachss Extends His Crusade For The Helpless And Innocent In Society
Adam Woog; Special To The Seattle Times
TICKET; Pg. G18
Andrew Vachss will autograph "Safe House" at noon Monday at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle (206-587-5737). Vachss will also appear at 7 p.m. at University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle (206-634-3400). New Yorker Andrew Vachss is an attorney. He is also the author of a scorching series of super-tough crime novels starring an ex-con, semi-legitimate private eye named Burke.
Both of Vachss' professions serve to spotlight one thing: his obsessive battle against violence committed against innocent and helpless victims.
As an attorney, Vachss is single-minded: His only clients are children, and the bulk of his cases involve abuse. Likewise, the Burke novels focus on giving voice to subjects most of us would rather not think about. Besides child abuse, these books have plumbed other aspects of human degradation, from pornography to the white-supremacy movement to snuff films.
Now, with "Safe House" (Knopf, $24), Vachss adds a new topic: men who batter and stalk women. The novel gets Vachss' message across with his trademark mixture of ice-cold action, unwavering empathy and grim humor. The prose is accomplished, stylized and flinty; the plot is direct and commanding.
A former prison-mate of Burke's, a simple-minded giant named Hercules, contacts the rogue private eye. Hired to rough up a battering husband, Herk has gone too far and killed the man.
Checking out the situation, Burke uncovers a "safe house" for battered women run by an Irish-Aleut woman with the improbable name of Crystal Beth. Despite instincts for safety and anonymity that rival Burke's, she has herself become the target of a stalker ... which means Burke has to step in.
The book's publication has a novel twist. Taking a cue from the movies, a "soundtrack" CD is being released as a companion to "Safe House." It features some of the music that the blues-addicted Burke loves most, from masters like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters to lesser-known lights such as Katie Webster and the unjustly neglected Judy Henske.
Burke clearly serves as a kind of fictional vigilante-avenger for the real-life author. Cruising the streets of a nightmarish New York, surrounded by his fiercely loyal associates, Burke wages vicious war and wreaks a terrible vengeance.
Wiry and tightly coiled, author Vachss speaks in a serious smoker's voice that goes well with the mysterious, eye-patched image he projects in photographs. He's spookily smart, does not suffer fools gladly, and is given to statements like: "I want focus. In everything."
Though the violence described in his books is horrifyingly explicit, Vachss says he has to tone it down from the level of the real cases he deals with. He also insists that there was no abuse in his personal background.
He is married (to a former sex-crimes prosecutor) but has no children, and he has said in interviews that he doesn't think he would make a particularly good father, at least in part because of his busy schedule.
For Vachss, fiction is simply a way to get his message out to a wider audience. As this crusading lawyer-author openly admits: "I wanted a bigger jury than I'd ever find in court."
Photo © Leo Sorel: Andrew Vachss, author of "Safe House," is a New York attorney who represents children and other victims of crime.
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