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Just Kidding: Andrew Vachss Writes Crime Novels—for the Children

By Peter Pavia
Originally published in the New York Post, August 13, 2006

ATTORNEY and novelist Andrew Vachss' resume lends credibility to his tough-guy image. He helped provide hunger relief during Biafra's struggle for independence. He supervised a maximum-security facility for violent youthful offenders. And he's been long associated with the child welfare group Protect, which recently won a huge victory by closing the abysmal "incest loophole" in New York's child rape laws.

His latest tale of urban despair, "Mask Market," (Pantheon, $25) is his 16th featuring Burke, an N.Y.C. sleuth hunting creeps who prey on children. Burke first appeared in 1985's "Flood," and while Vachss' alter-ego may have lost a step, he remains the hardest of hard-boiled PIs.

The details of criminal life in "Mask Market" feel deadly accurate. Where did you learn all this stuff?

I've never researched a book in my life. I know what's going on. I report. I wrote about predatory pedophiles using modems to traffic in kiddie porn in 1986, before there was even an Internet.

As an attorney, do you only work on child advocacy issues?

I don't do child advocacy. NAMBLA [the North American Man-Boy Love Association] says it's a child advocacy group.

Then what's more accurate?

Child protection. How 'bout that?

How much time do you actually spend practicing law?

I don't even know the answer to that. Trials and fights, sometimes they're a TKO, sometimes they go on for months. You can't measure courtroom work by the time you spend within those four walls.

Do you believe in vigilante justice?

That's an oxymoron. There's no such thing. I don't consider a mob of human beings kicking the s--t out of somebody they don't even know for a reason they don't understand to be justice.

What interested you in fiction?

Because my first book was nonfiction, a textbook about juvenile violence. It got great reviews and nobody read it.

Were you influenced by any other practitioners of the hard-boiled genre?

I can't say that I was, because my first novel never got published. It makes these books that are supposedly so hard-core seem tame. It ended with a young man walking into a high school with a double bag full of weapons who takes out every human being he can, and then himself. Now at the time I was writing it, I didn't know about any high school being Columbine'd. And I didn't predict anything. But I had talked to plenty of kids who, that was their dream.

Are all the Burke novels catalyzed by trauma inflicted on a child?

They're all about ways in which children are exploited that the world doesn't know enough about. So that's fair. I'm an American, I know what's required for Americans to take action. They need to get angry. The books are vehicles to make people angry.

How strong is your identification with Burke?

This is a bad guy. If you want to know what hell looks like, you don't ask an angel to be your guide. We share the same taste in music and women. Our politics are the same. We're both gamblers. I'm trying to show him as an abused child, hypervigilant, distrustful, and absolutely bonded to the family of his choice.

Burke's a career criminal. He's about money, but he's got certain tripwires, and if you stumble over them, you're going to get trouble. But Burke doesn't affect change. What laws did he change?

Is there a danger for a creator of a series as long-running and successful as the Burke titles that you'll get sick of the character?

No, because I'll never get sick of the cause. I never even thought there'd be a second Burke book. I didn't set out to write a series. What egomaniac would sit down and say I'm going to write a 16-, 17-book series?

Is there anything that Burke could do at this point that would surprise you?

No, because I'm not one of these people who gush that the character has a life of his own. You're going to see a different Burke in every book. If you write a series where the guy is the same age, living in the same place over the course of 16 books, you're straining the willing suspension of disbelief. Anybody who thinks they can do the same things they did 30 years ago without learning new tricks to compensate is a dead man. Burke needs to go further or die.

Copyright 2006 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.


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