Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Dark Knight Returns

By Ray Banks

About twenty-two years ago, I was given a charity anthology called Unusual Suspects. The reason: the book boasted a “lost” Jim Thompson story, “The Car In The Mexican Quarter”. Now I couldn’t tell you much about that story (I probably liked it), nor do I remember the details of work by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke or Jonathan Lethem. The only thing I do remember is the jolt of the penultimate tale, a short-short piece barely four pages long, called “Homeless”.
“When I was a little kid, I saw this demonstration in the park near my house. A lot of people, screaming and yelling. Most of the men had long hair. The man who lived with my mother would have said they were fags. There was a big sign. BRING THE WAR HOME it said."
This was my introduction to Andrew Vachss. It blew my world apart. I didn’t know writing could be like that. Declarative sentences, meticulously crafted. Statements of fact. This is the world. This is the truth. This is important. And God help you if you don’t pay attention. His voice is that of the voiceless, his focus unparalleled. Many writers are described in pugilistic terms; very few read like they’re fighting for their lives. Further research confirmed the theory: this was an author who’d been an aid worker in Biafra, a labour organiser, a director of a maximum-security juvenile prison, an attorney specialising in cases of child abuse. For a young writer prospecting for authenticity in his prospective influences, Vachss was the motherlode.

I read Shella. I read the Burke books. I narrowly avoided tumbling into existential despair. Burke’s New York is rancid to the core, populated with irrevocably damaged outsiders trying to keep the predators from their prey. His worldview is grim, his victories small. Vachss became a tough recommendation to make, more so as ultra-hardboiled pretenders aped the violence and eschewed the informed indignation. In the end, it became easier to file Vachss under “grim-dark” and leave him there. For all their rigorous intensity, Vachss’s work felt too nihilistic to revisit. But then I felt the same way about Pinter for a while. And I was wrong there, too.

“Don’t confuse me with others in this game. I’m no cold reader. I don’t do hypnosis, I don’t look for tells, and I don’t use Amytal or psychedelics. Staging is important, yes, but I am the only indispensable element in the equation.”

Vachss’s latest is The Questioner, a novelette from snarling new publisher Utopia Books. The eponymous (and nameless) questioner is a man schooled in the dark arts of interrogation, but for whom violence is never a means to an end. He is a persuader, a diviner, a truth prospector. Over the course of 36 pages, we follow The Questioner through a series of interrogations as he gently probes his subjects and guides them towards their absolute truth, interspersed with meditations on his craft. On a surface level, this is another in a long line of skilfully rendered psychological thrillers from Vachss; scratch that surface and you’ll find a philosophical investigation into morality on a global scale. The hard, simple truths of Burke and his ilk have become something nebulous, their solutions no longer applicable if indeed they ever were. And in case you think this is a blurring of talent, rest assured that Vachss’s prose is still as precise as ever. The difference now is that he dares to leave room for interpretation. In this respect, the novelette’s ostensibly slight length is a bonus: this is a story that demands repeated reading, and promises to offer more with each experience.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some re-reading to do. And what the hell, it’ll start with a demonstration in the park. That never goes out of style.


Ray Banks has worked as a wedding singer, double-glazing salesman, croupier, dole monkey, and various degrees of disgruntled temp. He currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland and online at

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