Andrew Vachss,
The Getaway Man
(Vintage, 2003)

The toughest and most readable crime novels of the 1950s weren't published by major publishers, but by small paperback houses like Gold Medal, Lion Books, Graphic Books and others, publishers who specialized in noir 25-cent thrillers so poorly bound they were guaranteed to fall apart with one reading. Among the authors were John D. MacDonald, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich and Bruno Fischer (who is due a revival), as well as many other powerful writers who churned out one great crime novel after another for thousand-dollar advances. In those days, as Andrew Vachss suggests to fellow author Joe Lansdale on The Getaway Man's acknowledgement page, writers like Vachss and Lansdale "would have been kings." Vachss, however, doesn't seem to realize that he (and Lansdale as well) are already kings of crime, and he earns another bright jewel in his crown with this lean, terse, splendid novel.

Readers used to novels featuring Vachss's continuing character Burke will find this book a true change of pace. Vachss alters his literary voice completely in his creation of Eddie, a professional getaway driver. Eddie is as far from Burke as can be imagined, an innocent in a world of corruption, a man who is a criminal mainly because his talents are best suited for that particular job. He is a driver who lives to drive, and spends his evenings watching old movies that he likes to think parallel his own life (like Thunder Road and Moonshine Highway). Loyal and honorable, realistic but trusting, Eddie seems a sweet child in an evil man's world until, as in the classic plots of James M. Cain, a woman makes him reexamine his priorities and loyalties. To say more would give away too much of the plot, but Vachss never takes a wrong turn on Eddie's drive away from innocence.

The tight prose and simple style suit the subject perfectly. Eddie isn't nearly as eloquent with language as Burke, and there are frequent grammatical errors in this first-person narrative that only add to the richly drawn portrait. Nor is Eddie as outwardly intense as Burke. There's no crusader in these pages, only a guy trying to make a living doing what he loves to do, and trying to deal with the temptations and moral dilemmas that go with the job. The sense of the 1950s predominates, although there are frequent references to contemporary technology.

The book is short, less than 200 pages, and they fly effortlessly by, with Vachss's trademark style of using simple breaks rather than the artificiality of chapter heads. The trade paperback package is totally simpatico with the novel's spirit, displaying stylish '50s cover artwork and logo, and even creases printed on the covers, to give that stuck-in-the-back-pocket paperback feel (you'll have to break the spine yourself). It's a terrific book that ends with a perfectly measured body blow to the gut, and those who appreciate crime fiction at its best would be fools to miss it.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 22 February 2003

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