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Goodbye Burke, hello Andrew

By Ian O'Doherty
Originally published by, January 19, 2009

He has been described as "excessively dark and excessively brutal," but for Andrew Vachss, the best and most under-acknowledged author of the last 20 years, this is not so much an insult as a recognition that the world he inhabits and, in turn, the world inhabited by his iconic literary creation, Burke, is one that most regular citizens simply cannot fathom.

Over the course of 18 novels and 24 years, this lawyer, child protection activist, rescuer of dogs and keen social commentator has been shining a torch into the darkest areas of human depravity.

And, in Burke, he has created the perfect avenging, fallen angel.

And now, it's all come to an end.

The last Burke novel, Another Life, has just been released and Vachss, much to the dismay of his often scarily devoted fans, has insisted that this is the end of the line.

When he writes, it's of a New York we never see, even though anyone familiar with Chinatown and the Bowery will recognise plenty of the streets and buildings he mentions.

But Burke inhabits a different dimension; one slightly out of phase with the one the rest of us walk in, but no less real for that.

Vachss has also worked as a labour union organiser, and ran a sex-offenders wing for violent juvenile criminals.

But undoubtedly one of the most defining experiences of his life came when he went to Biafra and tried to organise air lifts of food after the Nigerian government closed all land and sea access, kicking off one the worst famines of the 20th Century.

So why did he volunteer? "The Vietnam war was on at the time and there had developed this prejudice that anyone who was against the war was a coward who was afraid of combat.

"Well, I was extremely against the war, but I was no coward, either. And, it should be pointed out, I was extremely young and stupid.

"I developed malaria, picked up other injuries and saw some of the most sickening atrocities you could imagine. And it all accomplished nothing. Absolutely nothing."

If Vachss sounds bitter, it's because he still is.

He admits to still being woken by his wife Alice (she started the Special Victims Bureau in Queens, New York, before she was sacked for refusing to make deals with sexual predators) in the middle of the night because of his nightmares and the experience also left him with a visceral loathing of the UN. "They did the same thing in Rwanda all over again years later. They should turn that f***ing UN building into apartments; they are worse than useless."

But it's his work on child protection that has really brought him to attention.

An orphan and ward of the State, Burke, modern literature's finest anti-hero, finally develops his own family; a collection of battered and bruised souls with one thing in common -- their deep love for each other and a burning hatred for predators.

It's an unconventional family, for sure, but then Vachss isn't a blind supporter of the traditional nuclear family anyway, saying: "If you break into a stranger's house and rape their 10-year-old daughter, you'll get 10 years. If you walk up your own stairs and rape your daughter, you get therapy."

Vachss and Oprah Winfrey made rather unusual bedfellows when they joined forces to change the 'Incest laws' which gave more protections to predators than it did the victims, but the pair eventually fell out.

The television host had picked Vachss as one of her "American Heroes" and a show was dedicated to him.

To her horror, it didn't go according to plan: "She started going on about the importance of the victim forgiving their rapist and that is just bullshit," he says. "It's the kind of nonsense that psychiatrists and sociologists come out with, but what it actually does is place the burden of guilt back at the victim's feet.

"After all, when you tell someone that they can't heal themselves until they have forgiven the person, what happens to them when they can't forgive? They feel that there's something wrong with them and not the scum who committed the crime."

Vachss has been described as the noirest of noire, and he's undoubtedly hard boiled to the tensile strength of tungsten.

In fact, his books don't read so much like thrillers as war reports despatched from a battlefield nobody would ever volunteer for -- he drags the reader by the scruff of the neck and takes them over to edge of the abyss, forcing them look at things they would otherwise shy away from.

But it's not all stomach-churning horror; one of the most overlooked aspects of the Burke series is the compassion which flows through the characters for each other -- both human and canine.

An obsessive defender of dogs, he sees in them what he sees in children: "You get what you raise. People say, for instance, that Dobermans are vicious. They're just hard-wired not to take any shit. So, if you get some idiot who gets a puppy and decides to show it who is boss, he's going to stomp on the dog.

"Then, one day, when the dog is big enough, the guy tries it and the dog says enough is enough. Then what? The dog gets destroyed and the fool gets to tell people how his dog was just vicious. And it's the same with people."

Vachss specialises in placing specially trained rescue dogs with damaged and abused children, particularly when they have to go to trial.

"A child can trust a dog, particularly a big dog, more than it can most humans; the dog can give them the strength they need and both dog and child get to find themselves again."

Burke may be gone, but Vachss remains, and given his promise not to stop writing, his fans will be waiting eagerly for the next chapter in his extraordinary life.

Personally, I've had Another Life for some months now, but I'm just not ready to read the last chapters -- after nearly 20 years of vicariously walking with Burke, I'm just not yet ready to wave goodbye.

But you should say hello.

Official website: Another Life is out now

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