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Be Very Afraid

Andrew Vachss' crime novels unflinchingly confront child abuse, AIDS, paedophilia and neo–Nazism. And he really knows what he's talking about. Jerome Boyd Maunsell hears about a very personal crusade.

By Jerome Boyd Maunsell
Originally published in The Times (London), April 01, 2000

After a lifetime spent in New York City, Andrew Vachss has recently moved to the milder climes of Portland, Oregon, and he's not finding the change easy. As a hardcore crime writer and a lawyer whose practice deals solely with children, the problem with the West Coast isn't anything as prosaic as finding work. It's trying to tone down that Big Apple attitude.

"I'm trying to soften my approach because what is standard in New York is terrifying here," he growls. "I tend to make people nervous, because I'm a very intense person, and I don't take jokes well if they are on the wrong subject."

On the evidence of his latest novel, Safe House, published here to launch Canongate's new crime series, it's not hard to see why some people might find Vachss intimidating. Put simply, the book makes most hard–boiled crime writers look like a bunch of schoolgirls. Maybe it's the razor–sharp dialogue, maybe it's the eye–patch Vachss sports (from being hit in the face with a bicycle chain when he was seven), or his pared–down style. Or perhaps most chilling is that Safe House is told from the perspective of first–hand experience.

The plot doesn't mess around either. It follows career criminal Burke when he is hired to track down a stalker whose other hobbies include Nazism and torture. Before long, he becomes enmeshed in a fight for survival against a highly organised Neo–Nazi cell intent on total supremacy.

If the storyline of this, the tenth book in a series with Burke as the main character, sounds extreme, then it pales in comparison to much of Vachss' earlier work. Previous offerings have pitted Burke against much more sinister predators. 1985's Flood dealt with paedophiles working in day–care centres. Strega, written in 1987, explored the murky world of child pornography on computer, pre–dating Gary Glitter's case by a good 12 years. Batman: The Ultimate Evil (1994) saw the caped crusader gun–running in order to overthrow an Eastern government with a vested interest in child sex rings.

Other books touch on the trade in human organs, prostitution, AIDS, and gay-bashing. Despite such controversial subject matter, Vachss sees himself as a social realist merely documenting the truth, more akin to George P. Pelecanos or even Charles Dickens than sensationalist horror writers such as Thomas Harris.

"I've always felt that I'm giving people information. Reviewers never understood that I wasn't just making this stuff up for shock value, but that I was seeing this every day in my work. Anybody who is in my business knows these things to be true," he says.

After he left school at 17 (he claims he was always a "lousy student"), Vachss' employment record bears this out. His first job was as a federal investigator dealing with sexually transmitted diseases, attempting to follow paths of infection to their roots. He then worked for the Department of Welfare in New York, where he was exposed daily to horrific cases. In 1969, he went to Biafra to try to set up a payment system for foreign aid during the genocidal war. Although he now dismisses it as a young man's foolish stab at saving the world, the experience was clearly instructive. "I quickly realised there was nothing to be done. It was too late. When they dragged me out I weighed 89 lbs and had malaria. I was lucky to be alive."

On his return to America, Vachss directed a maximum security jail for violent youngsters. Still in his twenties, he began to realise his vocation was as a lawyer for abused children. At the age of 30 he went to law school. "In some ways law school felt like a joke to me. There were all these kids saying 'oh my God, I'm afraid of failing an exam', whereas I'd been shot at, had razors thrown at me, and had my jaw and my ribs broken."

Time after law school was split between doing criminal defence work to pay the bills, and running his own practice, representing children, from a tiny office which he set up in a Chinese restaurant. His first foray into the world of publishing was with a 500–page text book on juvenile violence, complete with academic footnotes. The book's commercial failure, and a desire to reach a greater audience, spurred Vachss to write fiction. But his first novel languished in a drawer for over a decade, continually rejected by publishers.

"They all said the same thing, 'You're an amazingly powerful writer, but you can't write about this crazy child abuse stuff, I mean, why are you making this up?' They thought it was all my fevered imagination, so I just failed and failed."

When Flood was eventually published in 1985, it was an immediate success, allowing him to drop the criminal defence work and devote himself exclusively to representing children. And, of course, do more writing.

Since then, his output has been prodigious, with a dozen novels, two short story collections, three graphic novels, and a book of essays. These days, at 57, Vachss regards the writing and the legal work as two sides of the same coin. "I'm pretending to write detective novels, but that's just my way in. If I truly engage you, you will learn things, and if I deeply engage you, you will become angry. My measure of success is how many people are angry enough on reading it to want to do something. If I only wanted to entertain, I'd write lesbian spankfests or something."

This unflinching desire to inspire social change has reaped some rewards. Several appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show resulted in Congress voting to create a database to track child abusers who move from state to state. A fan was also so stirred by Vachss' work that he started a Web site, run by volunteers. As well as providing information on the author's books, it also hosts a comprehensive compilation of resources on subjects related to children.

Tellingly, Vachss is far less forthcoming when it comes to his family.

After merely saying that his parents were very loving and protective, he halts warily. He describes himself as having been "serially married", and is currently living with his wife Alice, who represents victims of domestic violence. They have no children as, seeing no other safe form of birth control, Vachss chose to have a vasectomy as a young man.

His secrecy is probably due to the unnerving behaviour of some of his fans and legal enemies. "I have one degenerate who constantly sends me funeral cards commiserating with me about the death of my loved ones. I get phone calls, where people say, 'we're going to kill you'. I get mail, which varies from 'I'm going to name my child after you' to 'I hope you die of AIDS'. I'm immune to being upset by a letter. My nerve–endings are pretty cauterised. I have to look at things that would make a normal person sick."

Sounds as though he's the one who should be nervous.


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