ANDREW VACHSS – Down in the Zero. Burke #7. Knopf, hardcover, 1994. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, paperback, 1995.

   Vachss’s tales of the alienated and disconnected Burke and his group of misfit and off-center allies are very much a specialized taste, I think. I’ve liked them anywhere from somewhat to considerably over the course of the series.

   Burke is locked into a spiral of depression that threatens to take him down into the “Zero. or oblivion. He killed a child, and it may destroy him. Then a young man appears who is afraid that a mounting number of suicides among his rich acquaintances may hide a common dark secret, and asks Burke to help him.

   Burke wouldn’t, but the young man plays a trump — his mother told him to seek out Burke if he ever felt threatened, and to remind him of a favor he owed her. It’s an invoice a long time in the presenting, but Burke feels he must honor it.

   Vachss’s fiction has always struck me as a curious mixture of the romantic and the perverse. Sexual deviance, child abuse, and bloody violence exist side by side with relationships among the characters that are oddly idealized and romanticized. There’s little real about the stories, either, which are very grim fairy tales.

   In this one there are strong echoes of Robert Parker’s Early Autumn, on that Burke transforms a fearful wimp of a young man into a macho budding race-driver in an astonishingly period of time. The plot is half-assed and half-hearted, and this is another case, I’m afraid, of an author just going through the motions with a successful series. There’s not a great deal here even for confirmed Vachss-ites, and even less for anyone else.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #18, February-March 1995.