Andrew Vachss was a master of American crime noir. Where most other writers can only attempt to summon imaginary demons on the page, Vachss has stared true monsters in the eye—and locked them away.
By profession Vachss was a lawyer who specialized in child protective work. He had previously worked as a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a social services caseworker, a labour organizer, and as a director of a maximum security prison for aggressive-violent youth. He was also a novelist in the noir tradition, drawing deeply from his experiences to provide reports from the frontlines of Hell.
His protagonists are gritty antiheroes, their lives and mindsets shaped by firsthand experiences of the horrific failings of the American child protection system. Navigating a murky underworld of vice and corruption, they are career criminals—but they also prey on the true monsters that lurk in the shadows of society.
Vachss provides unparalleled insight into the minds of monsters. One of the most bone-chilling scenes I’ve read in fiction came from one of his Burke novels. In that book, urban mercenary Burke targets a ring of pedophiles. During his preparations, he interviews one of their members. The pedophile explains in exquisite detail why he preys on young boys—but not what he does to them.
The dialogue is sparse and understated. It does not go into graphic territory. Much of the gruesome details are left implied. But in true noir fashion, the story plunges a light into the heart of darkness to reveal the writhing worms.
And every single word the pedophile spoke agrees with the political ideology of pro-pedophilia advocacy groups.
This is the genius of Vachss work: it is truth dressed up in fiction, so that it can reach the widest possible audience. More than just entertainment, Vachss saw his books as a means of catalyzing change, to inspire people to continue the work of protecting children. To him, his fiction is but a second front of his crusade; in his words, the war to protect children is the only holy war worth the name.
Vachss passed away at the age of 79. But his legacy will continue in his stories, in his work, in the people he helped over the decades. In his final novel, Blood Line, the theme of legacy flows thick and deep.
The unnamed narrator is a retired hitman. The adopted son of another hitman, he is the latest link in an unusual lineage. That lineage has a simple mission: take one of Us from one of Them.
When it is the narrator’s turn to continue the line, he executes his generational mission, adopting a young boy. However, he discovers he cannot pass on the mission to his adopted son. He cannot train his son to be like him. After his retirement, the narrator’s support network withered away, and he has neither the connections nor the knowledge to build a new network. Even if he did, his son does not have the mindset of a killer.
How can he continue the blood line into the next generation?
The answer when a distraught mother approaches the narrator and his son. Her daughter has run away from school with a stranger. Can they help?
The narrator can’t. But his son can.
The story is atypical of Vachss’ work. There are no capers, no expeditions into the heart of evil, no off-the-books investigations with high stakes. It is a deeply personal tale—but also a tale that touches on the fears and worries of parents.
The plot unfolds predominantly through conversations between the cast. The action is sparse, and what little of it is delivered in a cold, matter-of-fact way. Indeed, the action is so understated that it is easy to miss if you simply skim the work. Now and then, the narrator reveals a facet of himself or his son through a flashback, tangential to the plot but critical to understanding the characters.
If you’re expecting a traditional pulpy tale, or even a criminal investigation with high-pressure interviews and meticulous searches, this is not it.
This is a story of legacy. It is a story of a father grappling with the question of how to pass on the mission of his lineage to his son. It is the tale of a two generations bound not by blood but by circumstance and choice. It is the story of a man discovering who his son is, and enabling his son to grow into his strengths. It is the story of a bloodline.
Of course, it won’t be a Vachss tale without a report on the nature of evil. As the truth behind the daughter’s disappearance emerges, the narrator and his son find a new cause while staying true to the mission of their bloodline. And the reader comes to understand the full meaning of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’.
It is the perfect capstone to Vachss’ life, a reflection of his final chapter. Though his time on Earth is done, those who come after him will continue the mission in their way. The times have changed, the methods have changed, but the mission—and the nature of evil—has not changed.
This is not to say the book is perfect. There are some minor but distracting formatting issues, such as missing quotation marks and awkward breaks. More amusingly, scattered in the text are some lines that could only be comments left behind by a beta reader or an editor. This is the first time I’ve seen anything like it. I hope the publisher can quickly sort that out.
Blood Line is not for everyone. It is less a noir story and more of a character study. It is more literary than most, or even all, of Vachss’ work. There is little to offer for those looking for thrills and spills. Nonetheless, the characters are intriguing, their interactions are masterful, and the deeper implications are haunting.
Lesser writers celebrate decadence and nihilism. They describe the horrors predators inflict on their victims with relish. Everyone is damned; the only question is how they will go out. In sharp contrast, Vachss draws out beauty from the deepest darkness, and exposes the hearts of monsters to reclaim the power they took from the innocent. We see this most starkly in Blood Line.
You can find the book on Amazon here.
If you want stories of a more fantastic kind of evil, check out Saga of the Swordbreaker here.