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Great Lines, Unforgettable Characters Bring Suspense Fiction Back to Life

By Ronald Reed, Special to the Star-Telegram
Originally published in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram,
Sunday, April 26, 1998 Editorial/Opinions; Pg. 7

Safe House
By Andrew Vachss
Fiction, Knopf, $24

Ah, Andrew Vachss. The man makes other noir writers seem like William Saroyan. His latest novel is a furtive walk through a mostly dead society with Burke, Vachss' long-standing hero, as tour guide.

In the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the heroes are disillusioned, broken men—good knights adrift in a world without chivalry. They're flawed, they fight themselves, and sometimes they are their own worst enemies; but underneath it all—and not far underneath—there is a fundamental decency. Each hero is Rick in Casablanca.

With Burke, you're not sure. The hero's a shadowy figure grudgingly giving information about himself. We know he is not just a criminal or a detective, but a bit of both. He spent time in prison for assorted acts of violence. He prepared for the horrors of prison by being bumped from foster home to foster home, where he was abused, figuratively and literally, by the system and by many of his foster parents.

A cold terror lurks just below Burke's skin, and it goes awfully deep.

In Safe House, Hercules, an old prison friend, is in trouble and needs Burke's help. Hercules had been sucked into a situation where, gently or not so gently, he was to persuade a stalker to leave his prey alone. Things got a little out of hand, and the stalker wound up dead.

From that opening gambit, Burke follows a thread that takes him from "safe houses" (where women who have been stalked can find safety) to a series of neo-Nazi cells within the United States where a bombing is being hatched that may make the Oklahoma City tragedy pale in comparison.

Yet it is not the plot that makes Safe House such a typically compelling Vachss novel. It is, in part, the way Vachss can sprinkle unforgettable lines and images that will not die throughout the text.

Consider, for example:

"Vyra twisted her body to capture the pale midafternoon light purring against the white mesh curtains in the window of the downtown hotel room. She was nude except for a pair of sheer stockings and sunburst-yellow spike heels with black ankle straps."

Great lines cannot do it alone. You need characters who stick in memory; and this, perhaps, is Vachss' strong point. Of course, there is Burke, always ready to explode, constantly chasing and being chased by his own demons. But minor characters shoulder much of the narrative load.

If you believe the surprise went out of suspense fiction with the death of Raymond Chander, Andrew Vachss is worth reading. He takes a genre that appeared dead and reinvigorates it. Burke's streets are New York's, but he is a worthy companion to San Francisco's Sam Spade or LA's Philip Marlowe. And Safe House is a good one.

Regular Star-Telegram reviewer Ronald Reed is a Bebensee University Scholar and professor of philosophy and education at Texas Wesleyan University.


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