Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.
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My name: Brian Martin
The second Burke novel.
I have the Down Here omnibus, which includes the second, third, and fourth Burke novels. In his Introduction, Vachss says about Burke, "I wanted to show people what Hell really looked like...and I didn't think an angel would be the best guide." And he's right, I think. Yet Burke is much like Eastwood's character, The Man With No Name. And what is he but an avenging angel? And what's Burke's only religion? Revenge. So, yeah, Vachss was right; he just didn't think it through. He didn't need an angel, he needed a human being.
At some point, you gotta ask yourself if you like the guy you're reading about. I waited until the end. I don't suppose it's a prerequisite that you like him, but it helps. I decided I didn't. I can't say he's self-centered--he's got friends to whom he's loyal. But he's certainly the center of his universe. You could say that about a lot of people, of course, but there's a difference with many of them, and it has to do with the size of that universe. I just started I, the Jury. One chapter in and I can already see the difference. Mike Hammer's friend has been murdered and he's going to kill the bastard that did it. He's got another friend, though, a cop. He knows the cop has a job to do and he's fine with that. But this is personal. So he'll work with the cop, but he won't wait for him; he gets there first, well, he's gonna do what he's got to do. At another point, Hammer tells us one reason he's so worked up about this: the friend saved his life, losing an arm in the process, from "a bastard of a Jap" who, during the war, was about to run him through with a bayonet. Hammer's universe is big enough to accommodate nations and what they stand for; big enough to accommodate other good people who work within the system. Not Burke's. Burke's is a small place inhabited by a handful of good people; all the rest are corrupt, or they're freaks or "citizens" (i.e., everyday people) who, if they aren't evil themselves, are little more than the enablers of the ones who are. It's a tiny, claustrophobic world where only Burke matters, Burke and his Chosen Few.
Burke's the kind of hero that can make you root for the bad guys. It's funny. He's got this dog, see. It's a big monster, a Neapolitan Mastiff. It's just like him: you screw with her (or with Burke or anybody Burke likes), you're dead. At one point he's got the dog with him while he's meeting some toughs, including one huge bruiser. I found myself hoping for a Raiders moment. The dog's such a flashy weapon, she's like that ninja. I kinda wanted the bruiser to whip out a gun and blow the dog away. And I love dogs.
To be honest, you can't really root for the bad guys. Burke goes after pedophiles. Sure, Vachss has plenty of skins on the wall and he knows what he's talking about. But pedophiles are easy meat: everybody hates them. Vachss makes it a point to mention in his Introduction that the Burke stories aren't like those of other tough-guy heroes. Unlike those guys, Burke changes with each book. Maybe he does. But do the villains? I don't know, but I'm afraid they're likely to be as one-dimensional at the end as they are here.
I could go on and on. Maybe that's a good thing, right? The book makes me think. Just not about pedophiles so much. Where can you go with people who are inherently evil? Vachss knows this, of course. That's why he tries to show us the survivors, the victims. There's a great deal more to work with in that milieu. Then he goes and throws all that out the window by turning Burke into an idiot, a guy who, because he's an idiot, can take advantage of one of those survivors without culpability. We see the signs, but Burke, who supposedly knows a lot more about it than we do, has to have it spelled out for him. Hell, the way he tells it, he's a victim. You know, just like those pedophiles who claim it was the kids themselves who came onto them.
I have a suspicion. I think Burke wouldn't like Strega. Vachss is on a mission; he admits it. He wants people to know the sort of scum that walk our streets; he wants people to help do something about them. But I think Burke would see through all that bs, that he'd realize that readers are probably drawn to these books because they offer a kind of titillation not readily available elsewhere. He wouldn't understand that and he wouldn't approve.