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Andrew Vachss on the Record

By Donald Liebenson
Originally published in The Alert, July 1998

Before you settle down with Andrew Vachss' critically acclaimed novel Safe House, you'll want to set the proper mood music. Safe House: A Collection of the Blues is a collection of roots and contemporary blues performances that Vachss compiled as an audio companion to his book. It is righteous listening.

"These are songs that are mentioned in the book," he said in a phone interview in a gutteral voice for which the term 'hard–boiled' was coined. "These are, in fact, artists I respect."

A pre–eminent writer in the crime fiction genre (Safe House is the most recent of his gritty "investigative novels" that feature the character Burke), Vachss is also a lawyer, who represents children and youth exclusively. No Grisham comparisons, please.

The Safe House compilation is more than a "soundtrack" to Vachss' book, it is also a primer of blues as authentic as Vachss' gut–wrenching prose. Included on the compact disc are "I Got a Mind to Give Up Living" by Paul Butterfield, "Baby, Will You Please Help Me" by Charlie Musselwhite, "One Room Shack" by Buddy Guy, "Going Back Home" by Son Seals, "Another Man's Woman" by Marcia Ball, "I Asked for Water" by Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson's 1937 recording "Early in the Morning" and a rare recording of "Midnight Special" by Leadbelly.

Vachss gained his appreciation of the blues while he lived in Chicago, where he served as a federal prosecutor in the 1960s, "You could walk down Wells and Rush St. and hear better music than you could in some opera house," he said. "And frankly, one of the things I wanted out of this compact disc is that no one who hears Son Seals can say that Eric Clapton is the king of the slide guitar. If people are exposed (to the blues), they'd say, 'I want more of it.' I don't think there's enough exposure."

Booklist called Vachss' Burke novels "the darkest noir in the genre."

The author would probably agree. "I want you to see what hell looks like and I didn't want a white knight for a guide," he said. "Burke is nothing like a heroic man who walks the mean streets, nor is he a vigilante. If you don't mess with his business, he won't go after you."

As do Vachss' novels, the "blues speak the truth," he said. "What speaks to me about it is, it is a way of looking at human pain empathetically, not sociopathically. It is sharing the pain and feeling the pain of others."

Originally published in the July 1998 issue of The Alert, a publication of Baker & Taylor.
© 1998 The Alert.


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