Andrew (Henry) Vachss
Entry Updated: 11/21/2003
Personal Information: Family: Surname is pronounced "Vax"; born October 19, 1942, in New York, NY; son of Bernard and Geraldine (Mattus) Vachss. Education: Case Western Reserve University, B.A., 1965; New England School of Law, J.D. (magna cum laude), 1975.
Memberships: PEN American Center, Writers Guild of America, ChildTrauma Academy, Protect PAC.
Addresses: Office: PO Box 2233, Times Square Station, New York, NY 10108-2233; Law Offices of David H. Gendelman, 420 Lexington Ave, Suite 2860, New York, NY 10170-2899.
Career: U.S. Public Health Service in Ohio, field interviewer and investigator for Task Force on Eradication of Syphilis, 1965-66; Department of Social Services, New York, NY, began as caseworker, became unit supervisor of multi-problem ghetto casework team, 1966-69; Community Development Foundation, Norwalk, CT, field coordinator in Biafra, 1969, urban coordinator, 1970; Calumet Community Congress, Lake County, IN, organizer and coordinator, 1970-71; Uptown Community Organization, Chicago, IL, director, 1971; Libra, Inc., Cambridge, MA, director, 1971; Medfield-Norfolk Prison Project, Medfield, MA, deputy director, 1971-72; Department of Youth Services, Boston, MA, project director and director of Intensive Treatment Unit (ANDROS II), both 1972-73; Crime Control Coordinator's Office, Yonkers, NY, planner and analyst, 1974-75; attorney in private practice, 1976—. Director of Advocacy Associates in New York and New Jersey, 1973-75; director of New York City Juvenile Justice Planning Project, 1975—. Adjunct professor at College of New Resources, 1980-81; lecturer at Child Welfare League of America, Columbia University School of Social Work, Eastern Regional Conference on Abuse and Multiple Personality, Dominion Hospital, Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, Law Guardian Training Program—New York State Ninth Judicial District, Mississippi Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, National Association of Counsel for Children, National Children's Advocacy Center, New Hampshire Department of Corrections, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, St. Luke's Hospital Child Protection Center, U.S. Campaign to End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT), and others.
Awards: Fellow of John Hay Whitney Foundation, 1976-77; Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere, and Falcon Award, Maltese Falcon Society (Japan), both 1988, both for Strega; Deutschen Krimi Preis, 1989, for Flood; Raymond Chandler Award, Giurìa a Noir in Festival (Courmayeur, Italy), 2000, for body of work; Harvey J. Houck, Jr., Award from Justice for Children, for national child advocacy.
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
Flood, Donald I. Fine (New York, NY), 1985.
(Under name Andrew H. Vachss) The Life-Style Violent Juvenile: The Secure-Treatment Approach, Lexington (Lexington, MA), 1979.
Author of plays, including Placebo, 1991, Warlord, 1992, and Replay, 1994. Contributor of serialized novel, A Bomb Built in Hell, to Amazon.com, 2000. Also contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Armchair Detective, A Matter of Crime, Esquire, and Playboy. Contributor to periodicals, including ABA Journal, Journal of Psychohistory, New England Law Review, New York Times, and London Observer.
Works in Progress: A new "Burke" novel, a teleplay, and a stand-alone novel; nonfiction pieces.
Since the publication of his first novel, Flood, Andrew Vachss has emerged as a popular writer of "hard-boiled" or so-called "neo-noir" detective stories. His novels and stories describe—in often uncomfortable detail—the seediest, most amoral quadrants of New York City, where "the streets are worse than mean, they're positively depraved," as Washington Post Book World contributor Michael Dirda put it. Vachss's "heroes" often subscribe to the same questionable ethics as his villains; they are quick to circumvent the law, they trust nobody outside their tiny circle of friends, and they mete out violent, vigilante-style "justice." Tribune Books reviewer Gary Dretzka characterized Vachss's novels as "less about solving crimes than they are about forcing readers to come to grips with the evil around them.... Vachss puts that evil under a microscope, revealing aspects of the human character that most of us gladly choose to ignore." In Booklist, Wes Lukowsky wrote, "Vachss creates a gun-metal gray, paranoid milieu where ... to be mainstream is to be compromised, and where children and women are always—yes, always—at risk."
Much of Vachss's popularity stems from his favorite protagonist, the unlicensed private detective known only as Burke. An ex-con, Burke makes his living selling fake I.D.'s and doing dirty work for wealthy clients. He has equipped his office/apartment with a nigh-impenetrable security system (including, at the beginning of the series, a 140-pound mastiff named Pansy), and has outfitted his car with forty thousand dollars worth of gadgetry—making it, in Vachss's words, "the ultimate NYC taxicab." Burke surrounds himself with a bizarre cast of supporting characters: his sometimes informant, sometimes secretary Michelle, a transsexual hooker who, over the course of the series, gets a sex-change operation; a deaf master of martial arts, Max the Silent, whom Burke often calls upon for additional muscle; the Mole, a computer and electronics wizard who lives in a tidy apartment beneath a junkyard; and a street-and world-wise beggar called "Prof"—a moniker that could be short for either Professor or Prophet. On occasion, Burke is lured into service as a private investigator, often by a beautiful femme fatale, and usually to investigate a case of child abuse or exploitation. Having appeared in more than a dozen Vachss novels, the enigmatic Burke "helps all those who have a shred of goodness in them, and he helps destroy the irredeemably evil," to quote a critic in Kirkus Reviews. The reviewer went on to style Burke as "one of the most fascinating male characters in crime fiction."
"Vachss turned the crime genre upside down by portraying his P.I., not as a modern-day cowboy hero or hard-boiled Knight of the Round Table, but as a paranoid, and increasingly morose, vigilante," declared Dretzka, while New York Times Book Review critic Newgate Callendar regarded Burke's cases as brutal enough to "make Mickey Spillane's exploits read like the minutes of a Harvard alumni meeting, class of 1920." Another characteristic that differentiates the Burke series from others in the genre is that the characters change, and sometimes die, over the course of the series. Burke has been described by David Morrell in the Washington Post Book World as "a con-man, a survivor, a cynic, a repressed romantic and a very dangerous guy," he admitted that Burke's "values are higher than those of many so-called respectable citizens." Dretzka, too, insisted that such virtues as "friendship, kindness and loyalty are rewarded [in Vachss's books], and good generally triumphs over evil."
In addition to featuring a mold-breaking protagonist, Vachss's novels have been praised for the sheer quality of writing within. "There is great power in Vachss's language," noted Detroit News critic James W. Hall, "coming from hypnotic cadences of speech, flashbulb-in-your-face realism and the elliptical string of simple declarative sentences describing this sleazy yet morally tricky universe." Dretzka called Vachss's plots "as cleverly scripted as any currently in the genre," and Chicago Tribune Books contributor Bill Brashler dubbed his prose "strong, gritty, gut-bucket stuff, so unsparing and vivid that it makes you wince. Vachss knows the turf and writes with a sneering bravado." In Charles L. P. Silet's Talking Murder: Interviews with Twenty Mystery Writers, Walter Mosley commented, "In crime fiction, I've read lots of people. [This includes] Vachss, who I adore, because I think he is so deeply committed to what he believes in. I feel the heart coming through it, and I compare him to Dickens."
Some critics, however, have found fault in Vachss's earlier mysteries: Nick Kimberley in New Statesman complained that the world Vachss created in his first novel was "a humorless caricature," and New York Times Book Review contributor Marilyn Stasio thought his characters were "overdrawn to comic-book scale." Stasio, however, ammended her opinion in later reviews, noting Vachss's growth as a writer by calling The Getaway Man "a mesmerizing character study." Other reviewers have identified the style in Vachss's early novels as reminiscent of writers such as Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker. His books are "a perfect example of an '80s pulp," according to Ron Tatar in Armchair Detective. Tatar added: "I mean that in the best possible way." In fact, Charles Champlin maintained, Vachss's larger-than-life heroes and villains make the Burke novels tremendously entertaining. "You may hate yourself in the morning," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "but you are not likely to stop reading, because Vachss can write."
A life-defining antipathy to child abusers has informed Vachss's fiction since its inception. Sex crimes against children form plot points in his books, and the subject matter is depicted in all its graphic horrors. Though the author admits this to be an unpleasant topic, it is one with which he is all too familiar. As a social worker, a director of a maximum-security juvenile institution, and later a children's rights lawyer, Vachss has had an entire career to observe the consequences of child exploitation and abuse. "All my work has involved children in one form or another," Vachss once told CA. "My current law practice is exclusively devoted to children and youth.... My past experience makes me a far better advocate for children, and the money from writing helps to finance the representation of kids who can hardly pay the going rate." He later told CA: "Writing isn't my profession, it's merely an organic extension of my real work—a way of preaching my own particular gospel to a wider audience. I never miss an opportunity to go Trojan Horsing-around in a new arena, and I'm always looking for a bigger jury than I'd find in a courtroom."
Because of his eagerness to address such issues, some critics have labeled Vachss "a sensationalist" and his work "too explicit"—labels the author considers unwarranted. He told CA: "My novels are not 'ripped from today's headlines' but precede those headlines with ground-zero reporting that others have described as 'investigative novels.'" For example, his 1988 novel Blue Belle explores the black-market practice of selling human organs; this same practice was reported in the New York Daily News in November, 1993—five years after the publication of Vachss's book. "Many critics responded [to Blue Belle] by saying I had a 'fevered imagination,'" he said. As to critics' common accusation that his books are filled with violence and explicit sex, Vachss replied, "My writing often functions as a 'psychiatric mirror,' revealing more about those who respond to it than about the author."
Vachss rarely departs from writing about Burke, preferring to change the character's location and even his physical appearance to give the character new challenges. Occasionally Vachss does depart from Burke, however. His 2003 novel The Getaway Man is also a noir thriller in the pulp model, so much so that it was printed as a paperback original. The hero of The Getaway Man is an un-reformed graduate of reform school who works as a driver for a stick-up crew. "I wanted to do something that happened in real time almost, where you can actually engage with the character," Vachss told Publishers Weekly. "People who identify with Burke identify with some things that he does, but not with him directly. But I wanted to write a novel—that I knew people would call a thriller or something else—that actually goes back to the days when novels appeared in that form. Many novels in which crimes were committed were about larger things. That was my goal with this." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that although The Getaway Man "delivers the guilty pleasure of a dime novel," Vachss still "suffuses his story with compassion for children and a razor-sharp outrage at their abusers." Booklist contributor Keir Graff felt that the novel "should be a pleasant detour for both Vachss followers and fans of the genre."
Dretzka observed that the subjects discussed in Vachss's novels make them "as unsettling a collection of books as one is likely to find." He warns that "Burke isn't for everyone ... but he fills a void in a cluttered, too often unchallenging genre." Vachss's stories take readers "not simply into the mean streets, but into a subterranean nightmare world as compelling and morally challenging as any in the best crime fiction today," Hall commented. "They make us squirm, but we need to squirm. We are better for it." In Booklist, Lukowsky called the Burke novels "the darkest noir in the genre," but concluded that Vachss "has a loyal cadre of readers who relish their sojourns into the darkness." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Vachss "an author who clearly knows his terrain and whose sympathy for the truly innocent—the children—is unstinting."
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Advocate, June 8, 1999, Dave Ford, "Evil Choices, Hard Choices, " p. 81.
The Zero, http://www.vachss.com (June 17, 2003), author's Web site.
Read Andrew Vachss' autobiographical essay for Contemporary Authors.
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