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Serious Issues Permeate Crime Thriller

by Dan Pearson
Originally published in the Daily Southtown, May 23, 2004

Down Here, a Burke Novel by Andrew VachssFor author and attorney Andrew Vachss, the secret of writing distinctive crime fiction rests in having a hidden agenda.

In "Down Here," Vachss succeeds once again in his time-tested "Trojan Horse" approach by sneaking his deadly serious issues of social reform into the context of an alluring, hard-boiled underworld thriller.

"Down Here" is the 15th novel to feature the character known only as Burke, a resourceful ex-con with a near-pathological hatred of sexual predators. In this installment, he's looking for a pattern rapist who's in protective custody.

Vachss carefully frames the novel around Burke's clandestine efforts to assist Eve Wolfe, a former New York City sex crimes prosecutor who's now an outlaw information broker.

The impeccably stylish Wolfe has been arrested for the attempted murder of a suspected pattern rapist she had previously sent to prison, only to see the convict send her threatening letters from behind bars.

On a recent visit to Chicago, Vachss acknowledged that Wolfe is inspired by the former career of his wife, Alice, who now serves as a consultant on women's rights issues.

"I've seen Alice be threatened right in the courtroom. She has received unsigned threatening letters, but I couldn't say with absolute certainty if she received those notes from convicts."

The greater issue Vachss is trying to address is the need for a national law enforcement clearinghouse of information on pattern rapists.

He spends four pages in "Down Here" on a comprehensive survey for law enforcement to use that would lead to pattern rapists being "identified earlier and convicted more easily," he said.

"I went to a lot trouble to lay out a literal computer format that, if I had my dream, would be used by every working law enforcement officer investigating a sexual assault case."

"Nobody records rapes by phases of the moon. But if you think about it, wouldn't it make sense to do it? Because, in certain cases, you are going to have people that only rape at certain times.

"Certain triggers set them off. The only way to find that out is to collect the data and make it available to every jurisdiction."

But in order to get his message through, Vachss said, he still had to create a story that would appeal to readers.

"If you can't read the book to the end, then any information, any point of view I have, is wasted," Vachss said.

In "Down Here," Vachss, which rhymes with "ax," offers a flinty narrative and a recurring cast of colorful fringe characters to finesse his personal priorities in this highly unpredictable page-turner where the accumulation of seemingly unrelated data leads to potentially lethal discoveries.

Burke's beloved "family of choice" includes Max the Silent, a hearing-impaired martial artist; the Mole, a reclusive techno-genius who lives underground in a heavily protected Brooklyn scrap yard; Michelle, a stylish transsexual call girl; the Prof, a wise and diminutive prison inmate who always speaks in rhyme; and Terry, who was abused as a child and has a knack for computers.

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Copyright © 2004 Daily Southtown.


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