Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Outlaw Burke Takes His Last Bow

During the mid-'80s, my reading tastes ran mostly to thrillers and crime fiction. In 1988, after seeing a glowing newspaper review of a book titled Blue Belle, I purchased the third novel by Andrew Vachss in hard cover. I still own that book along with the other seventeen in the series.

Blue Belle blew me away. It was pure noir--hard, gritty, unrelenting. The protagonist, a career criminal named Burke, works as an unlicensed private investigator in New York City. He and his "family of choice" run scams, hijack illegal cargo and exact their own brand of justice whenever they run across anyone abusing children.

Burke narrates the books in first person in a terse, uncompromising voice. His eccentric characters and blunt prose captivated me. He describes the dark underbelly of New York, where two-legged sharks stalk, seeking the young, the foolish and the unwary.

In Blue Belle, a group of pimps approach Burke and offer him $50,000 to eliminate a threat to their businesses: a "ghost van" that has been prowling the dark streets, kidnapping and killing teenage prostitutes.

Vachss describes Burke's family: a master criminal who goes by the name of Prof--whether for Prophet or Professor--no one knows; a mute Mongolian warrior known as Max the Silent; a tranny named Michelle who is saving her earnings to pay for her "operation"; the Mole, a mad scientist who does work for the Jewish cause; and Pansy, Burke's partner. Here is the first description I ever read of Pansy:
I turned the key, listening to the bolts snap back. Three dead bolts; one into the steel frame on the side, another at the top, the final one directly into the floor. The hall's too narrow for a battering ram. By the time anyone broke in, I'd have long enough to do anything I needed to do.

Another key for the doorknob. I turned it twice to the right and once to the left, and stepped inside.

"It's me, Pansy," I said to the monster sitting in the middle of the dark room.

The monster made a noise somewhere between a snarl and a growl. A Neapolitan mastiff, maybe 140 pounds of muscle and bone, topped with a head the size of a cannonball and just about as thick. So dark she was almost black, Pansy blended into the room like a malevolent shadow, teeth shielded, cold-water eyes unflickering. Pansy can't handle complex thoughts. She wasn't sure if she was glad to see me or sorry she wasn't going to get to tear into some flesh. Then she smelled the Chinese food and the issue was settled. The snarl changed to a whine, and slobber poured from her jaws. I threw her the hand signal for "Stay!" and hit the light switch.
When I finished Blue Belle, I went looking for the two earlier books: Flood and Strega.

Andrew Vachss is a lawyer and child advocate who has devoted his life to representing and protecting children. He began writing fiction to reach a wider audience and to educate his readers on the evil of child abuse and the way it perpetuates itself through generations. Long before I saw the first news story on the subject, Vachss was writing about cyber porn and the perverts who exploit kids online. Back when I was still getting a daily newspaper, he did an article on child abuse about once a year in the Parade Sunday supplement.

For ten years, I eagerly awaited each new Burke outing. Sometime in the mid-90's, the tone of the novels shifted, sacrificing story for sermon, replacing plot with preaching. Even so, I continued buying the books to follow the ongoing exploits of characters for whom I hold enormous fondness.

Earlier this month, Vachss brought the series to a close with the release of Another Life, the last of the Burke novels. Here's the opening:
Revenge is like any other religion. There's always a lot more preaching than there is practicing. And most of that preaching is about what not to practice.

"Vengeance is mine" translates to: "It's not yours." The karma-peddlers will tell you how doing nothing is doing the right thing, reciting, "What goes around comes around" in that heavy-gravity tone reserved for the kind of ancient wisdom you always find in comic books.

Every TV "counselor," every self-help expert, every latte-slurping guru. . . they all chant some verson of the same mantra: "Revenge never solves anything."

Their favorite psalm is Forgiveness. And their hymn books are always open to the same page.

Get it? When you crawl away, you're not being a punk; you're just letting the cosmos handle your business. Whoever hurt you, they'll get theirs, don't worry. Just have a little faith.

Down here, we see it different. We don't count on karma. But you can count on this: hurt one of us, we're all coming for you.

If you haven't read a Burke novel, try one of the first nine. Once you're hooked, you will read even the sermons with pleasure.


Kaz Augustin said...

Sounds like my kind of series, Maya! Thanks for the recommendation. Shall go hunt them up now. :)

Maya Reynolds said...

Kaz: Make sure it's a Burke novel. He's written a bunch of non-fiction, graphic novels and other stuff.

Hope you enjoy it!