Andrew Vachss,
(Pantheon, 2007)

Burke is back. Career criminal, Child of the Secret and avenger of abused children, he makes his 17th novel appearance in Terminal. Unlike other series, this one keeps getting better and better, with characters growing and changing and acquiring new perspectives while maintaining the qualities that make them living, breathing people rather than fictional constructs.

This time around, a terminally ill ex-convict reaches out to Burke with a plot to blackmail three wealthy men who, as teenagers, sexually abused and then killed a young girl. The crux of the matter is, however, that Burke isn't content only to punish the trio financially. It's how he develops his plot of both extortion and vengeance that drives the book's narrative as powerfully and relentlessly as the engine of Burke's classic Plymouth Road Runner.

What I found even more fascinating this time around is the sheer muscularity and authenticity of Vachss's voice. There's never a misstep in the dialogue or in Burke's own narration. We often hear about crime novelists writing "tough" prose, but Vachss writes prose so tough it makes other writers work taste like steak tartare run through a blender. And Vachss once again proves himself a master of quiet simile and metaphor from the opening scene in which Gigi, a massive tough guy, heads for his target in a bar: "The battleship slowly broke loose from its mooring and started across the room. From behind me, two torpedoes cut across his wake." And there's more:

He flowed into a kata so perfect it was like watching vapor crush bone.

"Maggot," Michelle said, as quiet as acid in a beaker.

Sex-offender treatment is like performing an exorcism on an atheist.

As the last statement proves, Burke has opinions, and it's not hard to imagine them as Vachss's as well.

In a club, a singer opines, "A long time ago when we weren't at war / Even then we knew he was a political whore / His daddy tasted blood, so the son wanted more / And he's still killing today."

For Katrina victims, FEMA was the cop who tells a gang-raped woman that nothing would have happened if she hadn't worn that short a skirt and gone to that bar and let a stranger buy her a drink.

Katrina didn't rape New Orleans. Everybody knows who the real rapist was. But do you think any of those organizations that live on government grants are going to say it out loud?

Throughout the book, Burke's crew provides its usual strong support, and we get more backstory on the relationship between the Prof and a young Burke together in prison. There's also a deeper look into the motivations of the Mole and the maturation of Terry, the son of the Mole and Burke's sister Michelle. It's a family formed by love and loyalty, not by blood, and the ties are all the stronger because of that.

Those who have read Vachss's previous Burke novels will find this one a more than worthy successor, and for those who haven't yet made the acquaintance of this unrelenting, frightening and compelling character, there's no better time to start. Another master of simile, Joe R. Lansdale, offers a back cover tribute that goes far deeper than the usual shallow paeans of praise from one writer to another. Lansdale says:

His books never graphically display abuse, never wallow in it, but they always force us to look at the results of that abuse, how it changes, demoralizes, and destroys the innocent. ... He is one of a few who can lay legitimate claim to having changed laws and ways of thinking about child abuse, a real hero who has shone a harsh light on the cockroaches who scuttle about in the dark. His 'fiction' is more than kick-ass entertainment; it has, literally, changed the world for the better.

Amen to that.

review by
Chet Williamson

6 October 2007

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