Fighting and Writing for Justice
By Kevin Gonzalez, Courier-Post Staff
The bandage on Andrew Vachss' right hand, a complicated affair of canvas, grommets and lacing, is a reminder of an injury and a symbol of his intensity.
The lawyer/author earned it while cross-examining a medical examiner about a 3-month-old baby brutalized by the defendant. Most of its bones were broken.
"I was trying to get him to say the baby's pelvis was broken by a blow, not from being shaken," said Vachss (pronounced "vax").
"He said both points of the pelvis were broken, something hard to do with a single blow. So I told him to mark on my hand the space between those two points.
"Then I spun around and chopped a piece of the wall behind me. I was expecting to hit plaster; I also hit a stud."
He also got his point across.
Vachss, 46, of New York City, is a lawyer specializing in children's issues. Most people know him as the author of a best-selling series of books (Flood, Strega, Blue Belle, and Hard Candy) featuring an ultra-hard-boiled character named Burke.
Burke, a former ward of the state and ex-convict, is a con man who scams money from what he calls "slime." Pedophiles are his prime target.
Each book deals with an aspect of child abuse or kiddie porn, issues Vachss faces every day in his law practice. His calling card reads "Limited to matters concerning children and youth."
Like karate-chopping a wall, the books are his method of getting a point across.
"The books are an organic extension of the work I do. If there was no work, there'd be no books," he said.
Vachss prefers not to call himself a writer. "I'm a lawyer," be said recently while attending the Bouchercon XX mystery convention in Philadelphia last weekend.
His first book, The Life-style Violent Juvenile, was nonfiction. It had hundreds of footnotes, was heavily excerpted, got good reviews, and was read by, in Vachss' words, "maybe 4,000 people, 3,980 of which were already in the profession."
He decided if books were going to be a way to change the way business was being done, he'd have to write fiction and reach a larger audience.
"The books are Trojan Horses," said Vachss. "Inside them is information for a lot of people to access. It's like summing up to a jury of hundreds of thousands of people."
Professionals do read his fiction. At the mystery convention Vachss was told by a Philadelphia detective who was a fan that newcomers to the department's sex crime unit were given paperback versions of his second Burke book, Strega. They are told, "This is what we're up against."
In addition to being a portrait of an incest victim, the book profiles, in one chapter, the chilling rationalization of a pedophile.
Vachss is pleased other police departments have Xeroxed sections of his books for training purposes.
As the result of his books, he is asked to speak about children's issues. The night before the mystery convention, he spoke to a coalition of Philadelphia social workers, police and lawyers. In a month, he'll be speaking before the Italian Supreme Court about children and their rights.
As he sat in the lobby of the Society Hill Sheraton, Vachss looked like a confederate of Burke. Salt and pepper stubble clung to his high cheeks. He was outfitted in a loose, black leather coat with padded shoulders and a shawl collar. Soft, calf-length, black leather boots added a bit of height to his medium, wiry frame.
Then there was the black patch, covering his right eye, making him look like an urban buccaneer. He explained it was the result of a childhood injury. Light hitting the eye creates a strobe effect, giving him vertigo. The eye patch keeps the light out.
Although he says Burke and he are dissimilar, their lives intersect at various points. Like Burke, Vachss spent time in Biafra in 1969. Burke was a mercenary; Vachss was an investigator for a consortium wanting to know if the millions of dollars raised for charity were properly spent. Both caught malaria there; both are marked by their memories, of the carnage and suffering.
Both author and creation have the same musical taste, the blues. Many of the lyrics in Vachss' books were written by him. He and Burke adore singer Judy Henske. Vachss hopes one day to write a song for her. "If Linda Ronstadt is a torch singer, Judy's a flamethrower," he once wrote.
Burke has a canine bodyguard, a Neapolitan mastiff named Pansy, a massive mutt with jaws like a trash compactor. Vachss has one too, in addition to several other dogs, including a Rottweiller. All are capable of munching a mugger into mincemeat.
Burke and Vachss have a vein of cynicism deep enough to swallow several crews of miners. Real-life judges sometimes hold grudges against Vachss because Burke has said in a book certain justices got their job "by using Preparation H as lip gloss."
There are differences. If Burke is a character who expresses himself physically, Vachss admits his idea of exercise is lighting cigarettes with wooden matches instead of a Zippo.
While Vachss' face is well-known because of his appearances in People magazine, Parade, and stints with talk show hosts Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donahue, he is deliberately vague about Burke's looks. Vachss wants to keep him anonymous as possible. "I don't want readers concentrating on what he looks like. He's their eyes, ears and nose," Vachss said.
It is necessary Burke be the way he is, for credibility's sake. "I do not want to be some Raymond Chandler clone," he said with a groan. "If my character is a white knight sitting in his office, drinking whiskey and waiting for his next case, that's not real. Therefore, anything that follows from that is not true.
"Burke is the prototype of the abused child," he said. "His main concern is being safe.
"In order for people to believe what I'm showing them, their guide has to be a practicing criminal, someone who does the right thing for the wrong reasons."
His next book, Blossom, is due out in June. It is about a piquerist, or sexual sniper, and will remove Burke from New York to Indiana.
All of his books are named after women because, Vachss said, "The strongest, finest, bravest people I've ever met have been women."
He carries like a tattoo one memorable moment that illustrates his view. Weakened and dehydrated down to 89 pounds, he was crawling toward a small plane across an airstrip in Biafra.
"I ran out of gas," he said. "I wasn't going to make it on that plane and get out of Africa." Two tiny, black nuns came to his aid, carrying him to the packed plane. "I looked up at them, wondering if they were going to get on," he recalled.
"They said, 'We have work to do,' and walked back into the jungle. You don't forget things like that, my friend."
Should his writing ever run out of gas, Vachss said he'll walk away from fiction, much like Burke ditching a hot handgun.
In the meantime, Vachss will continue his fight in the courts against child abuse and kiddie porn.
"Child pornography is not a First Amendment issue. It's a picture of a crime. That takes it out of the free speech arena," he said. He shook his head and exhaled heavily, knowing many in the rest of the world don't share that belief, choosing to argue about shades of grey.
"That why I like my world [in books] better," said Vachss, grinding out a cigarette. "It's black and white."
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