"I parked the cab at a hack stand, pulled my gym bag off the front seat and walked along until I found a bar that didn't have ferns in the windows."
Three things can immediately be said about BURKE. One, he is, as they say round here, "well hard". Two, unlike many P.I's, Burke's creator, Andrew Vachss, like Burke himself, "walks it like he talks it". And three, these are controversial books. They rightly generate a lot of 'debate' about their subject, the sexual abuse of children (although 'debate' might not be the right word given some of the extreme reactions to the Burke books).
Burke is the urban survivalist, bar none. A man for hire with a history which, like so many of the people around him and the people he tries to help, is a history of pain, abuse and being an outcast. Burke is, as Vachss slowly reveals, a product of the American "care" and punishment system. What makes him tick, however, is the way he has come to terms with the circumstances of his life and developed the personal code of an outsider. In doing this Vachss give us a narrative eye through which we can view America's badlands. Check this out this tour of New York's Broadway, from Strega: "Black teenagers were standing to one side in little groups...The white boys on the other side ...were younger - they cruised quietly, hawk eyes watching the cars for a customer. The groups never mixed. The black rough-off artists knew better than to move on the little stud-hustlers - a kid peddling his under-age ass and telling himself he's not really homosexual will be happy to stab you to prove it".
Burke is the type of 'good guy/bad guy' that is the stock in trade of the genre. Comparisons are a bit pointless but in many respects he resembles Spenser, especially in the way he has a 'family' around him - street people who share Burke's world. Most impressive of these is Max the Silent, an almost invincible warrior. then there's The Mole, The Prof, Michelle (a transsexual with attitude), and last but by no means least, Pansy. "about a 140 pounds of vicious muscle and as dumb as a brick". All of them strike you as people/dogs not to cross.
The books take you down some very mean streets. They are written in a brutal but compelling style as well as being intricately plotted. If you are ever thinking of dropping out and becoming an urban commando they contain some indispensable advice, although maybe they should also carry a health warning: "Don't try this at home". The subject matter underpinning the books is the abuse of children. The sicko's and freaks who inhabit Burke's world are inevitably - and irretrievably - connected to kiddie porn, incest and the exploitation, and worse, of children.
Possibly the first three books in the series stand out as the best. Flood (1985) sets the scene and has Burke helping the eponymous Flood to get some bone-crunching revenge on the man who raped and killed her friend's daughter. From 1987, Strega - literally 'witch' - involves Burke in the mob and some very nasty child porn. Blue Belle (1988), regarded by Vachss as his best, has Burke falling for Belle whilst taking on his evil mirror reflection, Mortay. Added to this there is a death machine called the Ghost Van driving around the porn joints of 42nd Street, picking off prostitutes.
From this point on, the series continues to shock, as we follow Burke in an increasingly-desperate world. If one was to criticise the books it would be in the way they can become mired in their theme, to the detriment of their content. However, Vachss is always prepared to take on controversy. The latest in print, False Allegations (1997), tackles the topic of true and false allegations of child abuse. A valid subject for crime writing? You'll have to decide for yourself.
Vachss himself has worked for the last two decades as a lawyer specialising in child protection so he knows what he's talking about. There is a comprehensive and informative site at http://www.vachss.com which is well worth checking out.
A unique and compelling voice in crime writing, the Burke books cannot fail but to leave an impression.
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Respectfully submitted by Peter Walker.
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