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Investigative Fiction

By Duane Swierczynski
Originally published by, July 7, 2005

A few weeks ago, I received a copy of Two Trains Running, a new novel by Andrew Vachss, a veteran crime writer as well as a lawyer who represents abused children. Two Trains is a sprawling epic about a corrupt town circa 1959, where a cast of shady figures — FBI agents included — are embroiled in mob and race wars. It's a raw portrait of a volatile era.

Some journalists I know would be horrified to hear that — especially after the Glass and Blair scandals. What Vachss is suggesting is in the same ballpark, right? Blurring the line between journalism and fiction?

"Well, I'm trying to blur it in the right direction," says Vachss, on the phone. "Journalism is the one thing that protects us. There's a history of crusading, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may journalists. But that's given way to advocacy journalists, who have left- or right-wing biases. That doesn't make sense. The only thing a journalist should worship is the truth." (The hero of Two Trains is Jimmy Proctor, a reporter with questionable morals but a thirst for the truth.)

So why not write a nonfiction book about 1959? "There are plenty of people who have used "fiction' to reach a wider audience than a newspaper article would have — Frank Norris. Upton Sinclair," says Vachss. "People could say things in fiction that I'm not sure they could have said in nonfiction. And I'm not sure the interest would have been there."

It's a good point. For many readers, a daily paper can feel like homework. Or worse, the impact of a good investigative piece is forgotten the moment the paper is dropped on the kitchen table. Sometimes, people even confuse fact with fiction.

"One person who read the book contacted me and said, "It's kind of outrageous you're postulating that the FBI had assets in the Klan,'" says Vachss. "But I didn't postulate that! That's fact. It would have taken 10 minutes to actually check that."

That's the other thing in Vachss' corner: his resume. He's been a government researcher and a labor organizer; as a lawyer, he's talked to dozens of criminals and victims of crime. "I'm a good listener," he says.

But at the end of the day, Vachss doesn't want to answer questions. "I want people to become questioners. If you want to start by questioning this book, OK."

The more questioners the better, I say. Under the current regime, criticism is too easily labeled "treason." And if it takes a novel to spark those questions, so be it.

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