Andrew Vachss, the prolific hardboiled crime writer, comics writer, and tireless defender of abused children, has passed away at age 79. His official website reported that he died on December 27th. The news came from the Legislative Drafting Institute for Child Protection, which announced, “Andrew Vachss has died. The loss cannot be measured, and the debts can only be paid forward.”
According to his biography, Andrew Vachss has been a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a social-services caseworker, a labor organizer, and has directed a maximum-security prison for aggressive-violent youth. He became a lawyer in private practice to represent children and youth exclusively and was a founding member of the Legislative Drafting Institute for Child Protection. He is the author of 33 novels, including the 18-book Burke series, the Aftershock Trilogy, the Cross Trilogy, three collections of short stories, graphic novels, essays, and a children’s book for adults. He also wrote music, song lyrics, plays and comics while continuing his legal work.
Vachss’ fiction is possibly the most hardboiled crime fiction ever written, and not just the macho empowerment fantasies that appeal to men. He began his literary career in the mid-1980s and was a peer of James Ellroy, Jon Lonsdale and James Lee Burke. He arranged for Ellroy to meet a true criminal psychopath for the first time in a prison visit for research – Ellroy was said to be utterly horrified, and Vachss was said to have had a good laugh over it.
His fiction served as gateway drugs to call attention to the horrors of child sexual abuse and the predators who commit them. His prose style was increasingly terse, almost haiku-like, and unsentimental, though his stories were often at heart romantic and filled with heartbreak underneath the brutality and horror. Vachss’ main characters were urban mercenaries and vigilantes who worked outside the system with found families, all survivors of the penal system and many of them survivors of abuse themselves. They hunted down child predators without mercy, and often as part of a job, but their hatred of predators lent their missions an extra vehemence. He was also an early LGBTQ ally, often featuring LGBTQ characters as sympathetic, fully-rounded human beings in his stories without ever othering them.
Vachss drew on his firsthand experiences dealing with the children he defended and the perpetrators he met to give his stories the sense of authenticity that no other crime author had. His first novel, A Bomb Built in Hell, was initially rejected by publishers for being too dark and nihilistic. It was the Burke novels that were published first and put him on the map. Wesley, the terrifying hitman protagonist from A Bomb Built in Hell, was folded into one of the later Burke novels where even Burke feared him. A Bomb Built in Hell was eventually published in 2012. He even wrote a Batman novel in 1995, Batman: The Ultimate Evil, where Bruce Wayne discovered his mother was a crusader against child sexual abuse and her murder was linked to her activism. DC adapted the novel into a comic in 1996.
Vachss was also surprisingly active in comics: Hard Looks, his first short story collection, was adapted by Dark Horse into comics with art by creators as diverse as Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons and V For Vendetta co-creator David Lloyd. He had actually written the Cross stories before he wrote the Burke novels, but the latter was published first, and Dark Horse adapted them into comics in 1995 with James Colbert helping with the adaptation. The covers to the series were by Geoff Darrow. He also wrote a Predator miniseries for Dark Horse, Predator: Race War. These comics are currently out of print. Dark Horse also published Another Chance to Get it Right: A Children’s Book for Adults, a book on parenting with an emphasis on protecting children from predators.
Vachss was married to Alice, a former sex-crimes prosecutor who later became Chief of the Special Victims Bureau in Queens, New York. She wrote the nonfiction book Sex Crimes: Ten Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators, which became a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She has continued her work as Special Prosecutor for Sex Crimes in rural Oregon. Vachss was a regular in at least one bar in the East Village in Downtown New York City where the patrons and staff fondly referred to him as “Andy.”
Vachss’ last published work of fiction was the 2018 novelette The Questioner, which was no less hardboiled as the rest of his work. A final novel, Blood Line, will be published posthumously on January 26th, 2022, about the young protégé of an assassin who sets out to continue his mentor’s legacy of a lineage of hunters of sexual predators.