Saturday, March 6, 2010

Hard-boiled by guest blogger Steven Head

Jan. 22nd was the final day of the liquidation of my favorite local independent bookstore. I had to go, not because of the 75% discount, but for the same reason as visiting a terminally ill close friend near the end. I left with 2 remembrances, the last book by author Donald Westlake before his recent death and a paperback of Andrew Vachss titled Strega. I had sampled Vachss before but never returned.

My recent flight to Wisconsin seemed the perfect time to read the Vachss book and it filled my time in both directions. I have wondered what became of the hard-boiled detective novel. The style started by Dashell Hammett in the 1930's involving the stand-up guy against evil forces. Based upon Strega I nominate Vachss as the person keeping that flame alive with his Burke series.

While Hammett's detective was a product of his 'continenal op' pulp fiction pieces, the Burke character has a more checkered past. A ward of the state as a child and no stranger to jail or prison as an adult. He operates as an unlicensed private detective, taking the sort of jobs the Pinkerton's would never be presented. Through his extensive criminal world contacts he can navigate where others are excluded. And his reputation as a straight shooter is an asset, although he continually expects to be double crossed and set-up by all but his close friends.

Like most detective novels there is a supporting cast of characters from the shady side of the street. A Chinese restaurant owner who signals her clients when law enforcement is on the premises, a reclusive tech and explosives genius with his own subterranean connections, a street walker in the process of gender change, a deaf mute martial artist, and Pansy, a Neapolitan mastiff. Complementing this group are players from the relatively straight world, attorneys, counselors, and a free clinic physician, who collide with Burke's world on a regular basis.

In Strega we find Burke on an assignment involving child pornography. True to hard-boiled form by the end a sense of balance is restored, although we are taken on a guided tour of alleys, dark rooms, and sewers to reach it. Along the way we are exposed to the mechanics and dynamics of victim treatment and psychiatric thinking regarding the perpetrators. A real world problem given more than a cardboard cutout examination.

This book, and no doubt the series, depends entirely upon the connection between reader and narrator, Burke. While we all think we have a little bit of outlaw in us, can we really be expected to make the leap to identify with this convicted felon? This is where the mastery of Vachss is revealed. The recollections, lessons learned, and thought process of the narrator expose the reader to a fundamentally good person who has done some bad things. A person who tries to do the right thing, often in a compassionate and inventive way. But also a person who can administer street justice with force and no regret. "A crook with a conscious" is too simplistic but points in the right direction.

Here's an example of a Burke insight. "But when you spend your life lying to everyone from streetside suckers all the way to the Parole Board, you learn that lying to yourself is a self-inflicted wound." Lying to yourself. Who cannot identify with that?

Strega is a early book in the Burke series. Vachss recently released Another Life, the 18th and final book of the series. I look forward to reading of his adventures while waiting for the new Craig Johnson mystery. But given the gritty world where Burke prowls I'll have to space them out, going to lighter and brighter spaces between visits.