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10% Solution: Writing Crime Novels

By Bob Minzesheimer
Originally published in USA TODAY, April 30, 1998

NEW YORK — Andrew Vachss says he did not lose his right eye in a gang fight, contrary to what magazines like to write about him.

"There was no gang," he says, the words coming like a hard rain. "There was me. I was 7. There was a teen-ager. He got his kicks hitting me with a bicycle chain. Never saw him before or again."

He pauses. "I suspect any psychopath like that ended up with a shank between his ribs in some prison."

As Vachss (rhymes with ax) puts it, "I'm a black-and-white kind of guy," the kind with little patience for ambivalent shades of gray in the novels he writes or the life he leads as a lawyer who takes only cases involving children.

One day in a New York court he wanted to show how a baby's pelvis was broken. He punched a wall, breaking his right wrist in what he calls "my fateful courtroom demonstration." The hand still hurts if anyone shakes it too hard.

But that hasn't stopped Vachss, 55, from writing the hardest-boiled crime fiction this side of Sing Sing.

A Vachssian weather report: "Winter was against the ropes bleeding, but it refused to go down for the count. That gray day in March, spring was still a whore's promise—nylons whispering, but no real juice waiting."

That's from his new novel, Safe House (Knopf, $24), his 11th since 1985. Not bad for a guy who says he devotes only 10% of his time to writing.

Vachss' novels are designed "to inflame and inform. I wanted the biggest jury I could find. So I make them sexy, suspenseful, exciting—whatever adjective you want—so you think you're reading crime fiction, but by the end you should have learned something."

In his fiction, as in his law practice, his enemies are evil: pedophiles, incestuous fathers, kiddie pornographers.

He first met "The Beast" (a phrase he uses in his novels) in his first job as an investigator for the Public Health Service's Task Force on the Eradication of Syphilis.

"I met parents who treated their children as property. I saw cases of sex with tiny babies. It fried my eyeballs and filled me with hate that's part of everything I've done since."

His idea of crime prevention is child protection, "but politicians don't want to hear that. They say, 'Let's get tough on kids who commit adult crimes,' as if any 13-year-old studies the statute book.

"The kids who are abused and raped today are tomorrow's murderers, rapists and arsonists. They aren't biological mutants. But they feel no pain but their own. You learn empathy if you're socialized, not if you're sodomized."

Vachss' fictional alter ego is a man for hire named Burke (after a British grave robber), given to lines like "A good shyster can always O.J. the DNA."

Author and character sound alike and, Vachss says, "share the same taste in women, racehorses and music."

As for music, Relativity Entertainment has put out a companion CD to the book, also called Safe House, featuring the blues mentioned in the novel, like Howlin' Wolf's I Asked for Water (She Gave me Gasoline). "The sidemen on it," Vachss says, "make Eric Clapton look ham-fisted."

As for other parallels with Burke: "He was a prisoner. I ran a prison. But the fact that he was a career criminal and I'm a lawyer shouldn't necessarily distinguish us."

Critics tend to either love or hate his novels, but that doesn't seem to bother Vachss.

"The only reason for reviews is so people can talk at parties about books they haven't read," he says. "They are just bloody opinions."

And with that, it is time for a 10-minute live radio interview. "Sound-bite city," Vachss snaps. He looks prepared.


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