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Choice of Evil: Nothing but the Vachss

by Ian O'Doherty
Originally published in the Irish Independent, August 12, 1999

As you might imagine, the novels of Andrew Vachss are not for the faint hearted. Criminally underrated this side of the Atlantic, New York lawyer Andrew Vachss is quite possibly the greatest crime novelist alive. While James Ellroy peers in the black heart of Los Angeles, Vachss lives and works among the criminals and outcasts of New York. With thirteen novels under his belt, all centring on the outlaw Burke, the release of his new book, Choice of Evil, confirms his position as quite possibly the most unique writer in the English language. He is certainly the most disturbing, filling his books with a succession of nightmarish characters who often seem more like nightmares come to life than mere criminals.

A former director of a prison for young offenders, he is also the most famous prosecutor of child abuse cases in America, where his writing has had as profound an effect on the courts as the way he actually tries his cases. He once broke his hand in court, punching a wall during a closing argument. "I was trying to show how a child's pelvis could be shattered with one blow but I hit a stud in the wall and basically shattered my wrist."

So how did a lawyer come to write such horrifying books? "I thought I was a tough kid, seen what had to be seen," he says. "But I never knew people raped babies."

But Vachss is a lot more than just a lawyer with an obsession. His writing is clear as ice and stays in the mind long after the last page is turned. "I just wanted a bigger jury than I could reach in a courthouse," is his simple explanation for taking up writing. "My first book was a text book that not a whole lot of people read, so I decided to do another one and take out the footnotes."

That first novel, Flood, has led to a steady stream of novels, short stories and even the occasional comic book, all dealing in some way with his central concern—child abuse.

Ironically, Vachss says he has no great love for children, "I love some kids, some I don't. Some are obnoxious. I work and write not from a love of children, but a hatred of predators."

Like his characters, Vachss seldom smiles. "It's not appropriate to smile when I consider what I do."

In one case last year, Vachss was instrumental in obtaining a 100–year sentence for Behrooz Kanani, who liked to sodomize children. Judge Antonio Brandveen commended Vachss' work and thanked him for his writing.

He says, perhaps disingenuously, that he doesn't particularly like writing. "The money from the books means I can concentrate on my practise and not have to go into court with bullshit cases just to pay the bills. I never feel like I have to write. That is something writers feel, and I never considered myself one."

Beautifully written, regardless of what the author himself thinks, his books manage to be incredibly human and delicate amid the filth and depravity he writes about. Burke is a truly tragic character. Emotionally stunted, but self aware enough to know he will never be loved, he exists in a nightmarish New York peopled by pimps, abusers, child prostitutes and predators. It's an ugly place, but one which occasionally explodes into great beauty.

Choice of Evil takes Burke into new territory, dealing with a serial killer and the possible resurrection of the only man who truly scares him, Wesley, a genuinely terrifying character.

Shamefully neglected in Ireland, Choice of Evil is the perfect excuse to acquaint yourself with a hugely important writer.


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