Wednesday, February 23, 2022


I'd understand if you looked at the title of this post, and the picture it ran with, and assumed that I was about to eulogize Andrew Vachss two months too late. But that's not what this is. 

Bad Ass

In truth, at the time Vachss died, I had never read a single word he'd written. I'd never interacted with him. I didn't even follow him on Twitter.

There were reasons for this. The first was I had been under the impression he was mostly a PI writer, which is a flavor I don't generally dig (though there are exceptions). The second reason I'd avoided Vachss work is because I'd heard it dealt a lot with child sexual abuse. 

I'm not squeamish or a prude, but that particular shade of darkness has never done anything other than turn my stomach, so, though I knew Vachss had fought for children's rights, though I knew that, as a victims advocate, he probably handled the topic more skillfully than 99% of writers who touched the topic, it still wasn't something I wanted to go near. 

And then, when he passed, so many of my friends who, perhaps because of the same reticence that made me unwilling to give Vachss a shot, began to voice exactly how influential he had been to them. How fantastic of a writer he'd been.

It was surprising. Death brings out accolades for everyone, but these were sincere. Genuine. Powerful. You could feel them. Especially this one

Which, if this is the first time you've seen this, savor it, because god damn. 

Anyway, this outpouring of love, this recognition that an unsung master had passed, it convinced me to give Vachss a shot, and, after asking around, the consensus was pretty much consistently that I had to read SHELLA. 

I've read a lot of books that touch darkness, but the number that dive in to it fearlessly and head-first, I can probably count on one hand. SHELLA is one of them. 

The story of a killer named Ghost in search of a woman, SHELLA is a doomed romance told in blood. It's written in a tight prose that stands somewhere between propulsive and breakneck, and the violence, the depravity, and the emotional weight of those same actions, unfold with a speed and intensity that can be met only by other masters. The sex in this book, and there is a lot of it, is almost always uninterested, just another sin to be marked down or discarded. Emotional attachments are few, and when they are severed, it is just as brutal as the throat cuttings that happen throughout. 

More than once, while reading SHELLA, I have thought to myself, "This is what Ellroy meant when he described ultra-noir." 

In fact, SHELLA is more than Ultra-Noir. It's somehow both something worse, and also, strangely, more uplifting? Maybe that uplifting comes from the skill with which the book was written - I truly think 99% of writers would fail to capture the elements of humanity in these characters - but its undeniably there. And the darkness. God, it seethes. 

Not to make this anything other than a post about Andrew Vachss and my sadness at not being able to tell him how much his writing now means to me, and how, if you haven't read him, you need to correct that right damn now, but I've also been thinking about about how wild it is that this book came out from a Major Publisher. If anything, that's what Vachss means to me know. His writing is a demonstration that nothing is actually too far or too dark, if it's done skillfully enough, with enough humanity.

That's a lesson for all of us, I think. And something to be celebrated, no matter the timing.


E. Ellis said...

I have read all of the Burke books and they are dark, brutal, and straight-up unrelenting hard-core noir. I have also read one or two of his standalone books, and yes, his writing is not for everyone.

What really baffled me though was the lack of notice of his passing and especially on all of the crime fiction blogs I frequent. Sometimes it seems the internet is lightning fast and other times like a snail and in his passing, it was the latter.

I mentioned this in a comment on a very popular crime fiction blog at the time and have still not seen the level of comment of his passing (or others for that matter) in the world of crime fiction that I thought would have been present.

What concerns me about the future content of the more graphic noir fiction is writers like Vachss seem to be slowly being erased due to the changing opinions of the population.

Mack said...

I've only read his Burke novel and he captured very well a brutal underworld with compelling characters. I think it's time for a reread.

Thanks for telling us about Shella which I didn't know about but now have on my must read list.