The "Rambo" of Child Abuse Law
By Stephanie B. Goldberg
"Intense" aptly describes both Andrew Vachss' style of lawyering and the three hard-boiled detective novels he has written that have earned him favorable comparisons to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
The 45-year-old Manhattan lawyer says he doesn't write to win critical plaudits or for the money, although his earnings have jumped from $5,000 in 1985 for the hardback rights to his first book, "Flood," to $175,000 for his second novel, "Strega."
Rather, Vachss' success as a writer has enabled him to concentrate on the cases that matter most to him—representing sexually abused and battered children. Similarly, his books have a specific job to do, Vachss says—making people angry.
"My novels are just chapters in one big book," he says. "They are my attempt to turn the rock over and let people see what is undernearth, to hoist it overhead and throw it down on the maggots."
In Vachss' novels, the "maggots"—the pimps, purveyors of porn and freaks who prey on children living on Manhattan's streets—are stalked and blown away by his anti-hero Burke, a shady private eye and ex-con who dispenses street justice.
In "Flood," a beautiful martial-arts expert hires Burke to find the man who raped and killed her friend's young son, so she can retaliate. In "Strega," Burke is retained by a mysterious young woman to locate a photograph of her friend's eight-year-old son being sexually abused during day care. Haunted by nightmares, the child cannot feel safe until he sees the picture destroyed. The trail leads to a suburban couple who run a kiddie porn mill. Burke finishes them off in a "Rambo"-esque commando raid.
In "Blue Belle," Burke is hired to stop a van of snipers who roam the streets, killing teenage prostitutes. His love interest is Belle, a brutalized stripper who fled an incestuous home. Burke learns that the van's murders are fueling a snuff-film industry, operated by organized crime. Stopping it means a fight to the death with Mortay, a psychotic killer who works for the syndicate.
In Vachss' latest, "Hard Candy, " Burke is hired by a kinky call girl he knows from his childhood to rescue her daughter from a cult leader.
While his novels' characters are broadly drawn, Vachss says the crimes depicted against children are all too real. "You could take any file out of my office, slap a book cover on it, and it would make any one of my novels look like 'Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,'" he says.
Vachss believes that for some children, "the American family is more dangerous than any war zone." He recently completed a trial involving a father who had raped his daughter and, years later, raped her two children. Vachss was able to free two of the man's six children for adoption. "All incest laws imply consent," says Vachss, "and yet incest is nothing but rape by extortion."
He also wants to criminalize child abuse. "We allow parents to do things that we'd never permit of strangers," he argues. "If you grow your own victim, you have immunity. That's sick."
Thoughout his professional life, Vachss has been fighting, in various guises, the war against child abuse. After graduating in the 1960s from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he became a public health inspector in the Midwest, where he encountered an alarming number of children with syphillis, and was educated to the realities of child abuse.
In 1969, he traveled to war-torn Biafra to investigate the distribution of relief, and ended up contracting malaria. He still feels its effects today.
Later, he trained in a Chicago school for community organizers run by the late activist Saul Alinsky. "It taught me," Vachss says, "that I didn't want to be a community organizer." Vachss was head of a Massachusetts young men's correction facility before entering Boston's New England College of Law, from which he graduated in 1976.
Vachss has a one-room office on lower Broadway and is of counsel to the firm of Gamliel and Gendelman. He admits to playing hardball ("I've been accused of worse") in his practice. "I'm not a good old boy," he says. "I don't give adjournments, and I'm not loose about discovery. I want what I want—I don't believe there's a lot of room to negotiate in a child-abuse case."
His books are written "in my head," says Vachss, and "then I find two-to-three hour chunks of time, and power-type on my word processor." He plans one more book for the Burke series, but is vague about any more after that. "I don't intend to stay too long at the fair," he says. "This is a tool; when it no longer works, I'm out of here."
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