A Tribute to Andrew Vachss

Best-selling crime novelist and children’s advocate died late last year at age 79

Mark Twain once said “write what you know”; for author Andrew Vachss, it was more than a useful adage, it was his passion as well. The best-selling crime novelist and children’s advocate died on November 23rd, 2021 at the age of 79 from coronary artery disease. His death was only recently announced, but his wife, Alice Susan Vachss, has confirmed it.

Vachss (pronounced “vax”) was the author of 33 novels, three collections of short stories, and several graphic novels as well as poetry, plays, and song lyrics. His books have been translated into 20 languages, and most have remained in print since their initial publication. A practicing attorney who worked exclusively with children, Vachss was a fierce lifelong advocate for laws to protect children from sexual abuse, a cause he would take into the fictional worlds he’d create.

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Photo of Andrew Vachss courtesy of www.vachss.com

Readers know Vachss best for his best-selling ‘Burke’ series, hardboiled crime fiction featuring his single-named, anti-hero protagonist, an ex-con and child abuse survivor abandoned to institutions as a child. Burke became an off-the-books private detective and full-time outlaw. Vachss published Flood, his first ‘Burke’ novel, in 1985 and concluded the stories with 2008’s Another Life, the eighteenth book in the series. The ‘Burke’ series books are largely set in pre-Disney New York City, with all the grime, crime, and grit that implies. Vachss’ characters are hustlers, thieves, prostitutes, and gangsters. Child sexual abuse figures prominently in many Burke stories, Vachss using the narratives to make readers aware of the issue, evangelizing for his favorite causes through his characters.

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‘Batman: The Ultimate Evil,’ by Andrew Vachss.

Vachss also wrote for comics, beginning with the 1992 series Hard Looks, for which he worked with various artists to adapt short stories from his Born Bad collection. He would become part of the Dark Knight mythology with Batman: The Ultimate Evil, working with writer Neal Barrett, Jr. and artist Denys Cowan to adapt his novel of the same name for the visual medium. If child advocacy was his driving force, Vachss also brought other personal passions to his writing. A blues music fan, his books often referenced songs and artists like Judy Henske and Son Seals. He also incorporated his love of dogs into his storylines. A longtime crusader against animal abuse, dog fighting, and breed-specific legislative bans, Vachss trained therapy dogs for abused children.

Born in October 1942 in New York City, Vachss grew up in lower Manhattan. After graduating from Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio in 1965, his first job was as a field investigator on a syphilis task force for the U.S. Public Health Service. While contract tracing a case, he discovered a five-year-old girl who had caught the disease after her father raped her, which opened his eyes to the human cost of child abuse. After doing humanitarian work in Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War, Vachss pursued his education as a lawyer, graduating from the New England School of Law in 1975 and opening his own practice. He also worked as a community organizer in Chicago under Saul Alinsky during the late ‘60s, and in various positions in the criminal justice field.

As a lawyer, Vachss specialized in child abuse and neglect cases, custody disputes, and other child-related cases, always working in the interest of the child. He was an outspoken critic of current laws, and wrote extensively on public policy for publications like Parade, Esquire, Playboy, and The New York Times as well as in academic texts like The Child Abuse-Delinquency Connection. He used the ugliness he witnessed firsthand as a foundation for his novels. “If I had a wish,” Vachss said on the CBS TV program The Early Show in 2000, “it would be that what I write about was fiction.” A suggestion he made as a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show  led to the National Child Protection Act of 1993. Dubbed the “Oprah Bill” because of the TV host’s advocacy, President Bill Clinton invited Vachss to the bill’s signing ceremony.

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Blood Line, Andrew Vachss’s final novel.

Wolfpack Books will publish Vachss’ final novel, Blood Line, posthumously on January 26th. Further exploring his usual themes, it’s the story of an assassin who continues his mentor’s legacy as a hunter of sexual predators. The industry honored Vachss with a number of accolades throughout his career, including a Raymond Chandler Award for his entire body of work. He influenced a generation of writers. In Vachss’ New York Times obituary, his friend and collaborator, writer Joe R. Lansdale, says “he was not only a great crime novelist, he was somebody who changed the world, literally. Child abuse is no longer in the dark, due to Andrew shining a bright spotlight on it…”

In his introduction to the 2010 anthology L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories, Vachss explained his writing philosophy. “I learned, a long time ago, that people can read for entertainment and come away with enlightenment” he wrote, “so long as the vein of truth runs throughout and doesn’t detract from the narrative force.” Over a literary career spanning nearly four decades, Vachss opened readers’ eyes to the real world around them while also delivering some damn fine stories.

Recommended Books

Flood (1985)

The first book in the series introduces Burke and the members of his “family.” A mysterious woman hires Burke to track down the murderous martial artists known as “The Cobra,” who has dishonored her family. The book roars along rapidly and threatens to jump the tracks as the story leads up to a deadly duel between the Flood and the death-dealing Cobra.

Batman: The Ultimate Evil (1995)

Approached by DC Comics about writing a novel featuring the publisher’s ever-popular Batman character, Vachss viewed it as an opportunity to reach a completely different audience. Exploring the evils of child sex tourism, Vachss ties the Dark Knight’s investigation into that originally begun by his late mother, combating a sex trafficker in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Udo Khai. DC also adapted the book as a pair of graphic novels.

Dead and Gone (2000)

Burke is asked to middle an exchange of cash for a kidnapped child, finding out that it was all a set-up specifically designed to take him off the count. Burke barely survives the ambush and swears revenge on those who targeted him. His investigation leads him to the west coast, unraveling an underworld of Russian mobsters, neo-Nazis, and dangerous enemy from his past working on a multi-million dollar scam.

Another Life (2008)

The final book in the Burke series finds the outlaw lifer once again dealing with the government-sponsored spook Pryce. The son of a Saudi prince has been kidnapped, but no ransom has been requested. It’s up to Burke to unravel the layers of mystery surrounding the kidnapping, facing his own demons to get to the truth in a case that will have life-changing implications for his adopted family. An unsuspected ending provides a satisfying conclusion to the Burke series.

Blackjack: A Cross Novel (2012)

Deploying characters and plot elements originally featured in the 1995 seven-issue comics series he did with artist James Colbert, Vachss fleshes out the story of Chicago’s most feared criminal gang and their calculating boss, the master strategist Cross. Vachss added new characters and a supernatural aspect to the three Cross books, which explore the writer’s longtime argument that society’s failure to protect its children is the greatest threat to humanity.

Find out more about the author at www.vachss.com

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Rev. Keith A. Gordon

Rev. Keith A. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with nearly 50 years of experience writing about music, the media, comics and pop culture for publications like Rock and Roll Globe, Blues Music magazine, and Blurt and is the author of nearly two dozen books.

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