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Vachss Populi

Mystery author Andrew Vachss continues his passionate advocacy for children through his novels.

By Stephen Lemons
Originally published by New Times Los Angeles, September 28, 2000.

Author Andrew Vachss (rhymes with ax) concedes that he would never have become a novelist had he not been so passionate about combating the evils he witnessed as an attorney and advocate for children in New York City and the Pacific Northwest. For Vachss, 57, his hard-boiled crime fiction has always been a means to an end, a "Trojan horse" for his moral assault on those who perpetrate crimes against society's most vulnerable individuals.

"I would not have turned to novels if I did not feel that this was my way of transmitting truth," says Vachss during a recent interview. "I call it polluting the jury pool. When you pick a jury, they're already coming with their own sets of knowledge and expectations. A lot of that comes from what they read and hear."

Vachss originally wrote a textbook on the topics he later tackled in his adrenaline-charged, revenge-laden mysteries, but soon realized he wanted to reach a larger audience. The result was his 1985 novel Flood, featuring a sinister, ultratough protagonist named Burke. More avenging angel than white knight, Burke's been at the heart of 12 Vachss titles, including the most recent, Dead and Gone (Alfred A. Knopf).

You can bank on a line around the block when Vachss signs Dead and Gone at Skylight Books this Tuesday. Vachss' Burke novels are guaranteed best-sellers, and he has a notoriously rabid fan base who eat up each product of his poison pen like so much brain candy.

What's made Vachss, himself childless, so passionate about an issue like child abuse and molestation?

"You'd be passionate about it too if it were slammed right up in your face," he responds. "I began as a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases. When I thought I'd seen everything that could be done to children, I became a caseworker in the infamous New York City Department of Welfare. Then I went to the war in Biafra [now part of Nigeria] where I saw things being done to children on a systematic basis with genocide being the aim.

"When I returned, I was a juvenile probation officer. Finally, I ran a maximum-security prison for violent youth. I overdosed on the absolute reality that there's no biogenetic code for evil. We make our own monsters. At that point I went to law school to exclusively represent children."

Vachss continues his practice to this day. But it's his talent as a writer that's made him an international sensation. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he's been awarded such literary honors as the French Grand Prix de Literature Policiere and the Japanese Falcon Award. Moreover, his previous works are available in the prestigious Black Lizard/Vintage Crime series, home to the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Still, Vachss says his career as a novelist remains in the hands of the reading public.

"My friend, I never knew there'd be two books," he laughs. "As long as the books succeed so that a market is created for another one, I'll do another one."

Copyright © 2000 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.


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