Andrew Vachss,
Down Here
(Knopf, 2004)

It's difficult to believe that Down Here is the 15th novel about Burke, that grown-up "Child of the Secret" who lives across the border that separates the normal world from the world of lawlessness and violence. By the time most series characters reach book No. 15, they've suffered one of two different fates. The first, well exemplified by the Spenser novels of Robert B. Parker (who just released his 31st!), is that each book now feels to its reader like a comfy old shoe. We know who we're going to meet, what they're going to say and do, the kind of situation they'll get involved in and how it will all work out. Still, we go along for the ride, because it's like being in the company of an old friend, and we tend to forgive old friends for telling the same story over again.

The second fate is that of simply outstaying one's welcome. The characters haven't changed or grown, nothing particularly interesting has happened since, oh, about the sixth book, but still readers continue to buy the franchise, perhaps more out of duty than passion, and authors continue to milk it until the last dog dies and the shrinking sales eventually get too low for the series to survive.

Fortunately, Andrew Vachss' Burke books suffer from neither of these expected fates. The novels read more like one lengthy, continuing story, each book another chapter in the story arc of Burke's life. Some chapters are naturally more interesting than others, but all have been well worth reading, and Down Here is one of the more effective ones. There is a power to Vachss' writing that sustains and nourishes the reader during even the most procedural of scenes, and there are a great many of those in this novel.

That's only natural, however, since Burke is put in the situation of investigator. The woman he deeply admires and possibly loves, Wolfe, is a former sex crimes prosecutor who has been accused of attempted murder by a convicted multiple rapist now free on a technicality. Burke takes it upon himself and his colorful crew to prove Wolfe's innocence, but once that's done, there are still more puzzles to be solved and links to be made. The plot is primarily that of discovery, and it's to Vachss' credit as a writer that the process never becomes boring. Interest is maintained by his icy prose style, the never less than fascinating characters and the viewpoint of Burke himself, who, in an ethically ambiguous situation, pimps himself, initiating an affair with the rapist's sister, an artfully drawn businesswoman of whom Burke grows fond.

The core of Burke's "family" is present -- Mama, Max the Silent, the Prof, Michelle, the Mole and the adopted offspring Terry and Clarence. They're their usual helpful selves, except for when they want to help themselves to some money. Burke's altruism toward Wolfe isn't always shared by Mama and the Prof, who seem frustrated by the lack of profit in this particular job. Their greed is a quality that makes them both a little less admirable but a lot more human. Burke's humanity comes through as well, in spades. He's a living, breathing character whose observations can be touching, as in this scene when he and his family are eating around Mama's table, and he remembers his dog, who gave up her life for him:

My table, I thought. In my own place. With my own people. It's so... I reached my hand down, to scratch behind Pansy's ears, like I always did, telling her to be patient, she'd get her share of the score in a little while. Felt the dull, gray blanket drop over my spirit.

I shoved it away. Walled it off.

"This is perfect," I said.

At the same time, Burke's well-honed cynicism can make itself felt as in: "It was just turning dark -- too late for the kids who still watched after-school specials, and too early for the kids who knew they were all lies."

As always, Vachss' Zen-like refusal to use traditional chapter breaks makes the novel flow like a stream, and once you pick it up it's a tough book to put down. When you finally do, you'll find yourself wishing, not for the next book in a series, but for the next chapter in the dark, brooding and somehow hopeful life of Burke.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 17 April 2004

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