Andrew Vachss & the end of the series: more books that inspired Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran

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One reason I wanted to write a detective series was the chance to stay with a character beyond one book. One of the joys of reading a detective novel is visiting not just the detective every year or so (or seven, in Chandler’s case), but checking in with all his friends, family, and enemies, who of course now are YOUR friends, family, and enemies too. And writing a series, the pleasure is even more so. It’s really fun for me to know that even the little characters I’m writing now I can visit with again whenever I want.

Of course, lots of writers are wonderful at this, but one, to me, stands out: Andrew Vachss with his Burke series. For those of you who don’t know–well, first of all, go buy a Burke book! But in the meantime I’ll tell you: Burke, aka Baby Boy Burke, is not exactly a PI. He’s a former foster child, abuse victim, and career criminal who was “adopted” during a turn in prison by the Prof, a street hustler, who may be the Professor or the Prophet. Burke sometimes solves mysteries and sometimes commits crimes and sometimes does both. Over the years their family-of-choice grows to include sister Michelle, a transsexual prostitute who, along with her partner the Mole (a Jewish tech genius/Israel supporter), adopts Terry, a child sold into prostitution by his biological father; Mama, owner of a Chinese restaurant/smuggling operation and her non-biological son Max the Silent, a martial artist who marries Lily, an advocate for abused children. Together they have Flower, who, along with Terry, is in college when the series ends (or so I think–I’ll get to that in a sec). As you can tell I know these characters well. The first of the eighteen books, Flood, came out in 1985; I probably started reading them in the early nineties and I think I’ve read every one at least once, most two or more times. No one I’ve read does as good a job as Vachss as making you feel like his characters are not only real, but that their world is your world. He manages to age them, and have them change for better and worse in all the ways people do change, without diminishing the intensity of the series or their conflicts. People change, people have children, people (well, animals) die, people move, people have long periods of time when you don’t really see them and you don’t know what they’re doing, and people do pretty much nothing sometimes. Just like life.

But a few years ago, Vachss decided to end the series. I’m sure he had his reasons, and if that sounds bitter, it is. And I can’t bring myself to read the last book, Another Life. I bought it when it came out and got about a quarter of the way through when I put it away and, without meaning to, haven’t opened it again. And I don’t think I will. I think that some part of me wants to keep thinking a new one might come along–that Burke, the Prof, Michelle, Mama, et al, will continue to be a part of my life. I also feel–unfairly and irrationally–angry and kind of betrayed that Vachss isn’t writing any more about Burke. Believe me, I don’t think that position is defensible at all–I think it’s terrible! But it’s how I feel, and when I started to read Another Life I couldn’t put those feelings aside and enjoy it. I think once every year or so now I’ll reread one of the old Burkes, though. I’m obviously not at all ready to say goodbye.

Oddly, as much as I love the Burke books, my favorite Vachss book is a stand-alone, Shella, haunting narrative of a pretty demented guy and his demented girl. Isn’t that just about every story we love in a nutshell?

One Comment to “Andrew Vachss & the end of the series: more books that inspired Claire DeWitt”

  1. Shella was the first Vachss novel I ever read, and it led me to devour the rest of his work, and all his books since. I totally understand your reluctance to close the door on the Burke characters, but given your love of Shella, you ought to read his latest books. Two Trains Running is terrific political fiction, and I think The Weight is some of his best and most evocative writing. Cheers!

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