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Child's Play

  Only Child
Andrew Vachss
Alfred A. Knopf, 2002
Rating: 4.1

Posted: January 28, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Burke, the guarded, contemptuous outlaw/investigator of Vachss' long-running hyper-noir series of novels, is one of the single most complex characters in crime fiction. Which is no mean feat, given that most of Vachss' superlative books are abrasively short on what reviewers refer to as "character development." Burke doesn't do soul-searching: he's more fluent in scamming, scheming, protecting (himself and his close-knit underground "family") and avenging.

And he's in full-on avenging mode in Only Child, hired by a couple of homosexual New York mobsters to find the person who brutally murdered Vonni, the young mulatto daughter of one of the pair. An orphan and former ward of the state (as both juvenile and adult), Burke is also an unforgiving crusader for abused, neglected or otherwise endangered children, so it's good to see him back on familiar ground (both literally and figuratively) after the self-imposed exile of the previous two Burke novels, Dead and Gone and Pain Management. Reunited with his cohorts (mute Asian powerhouse Max the Silent, the rhyming criminal sage Professor and the secretive tech genius Mole, among others), Burke works the "whisper streams" and extra-legal channels of the New York area underworld as he fits together the murder's puzzle-pieces, eventually constructing an elaborate ruse in which he poses as a fictitious casting director as a means of ferreting out clues about the girl's death, and the mysterious set of videotapes found in her footlocker. Even in this somewhat awkward setup, Burke is back in his element. One misses the charge both Burke and Vachss seem to receive from the almost Bond-ian female foils of some of the series' better entries -- Flood, Strega, Blue Belle -- but Only Child isn't lacking either in sexual tension (Burke's ongoing, unrequited feelings for brusque info-trader Wolfe) or release (a couple of hints of indulgent recreational sex with a disturbingly well-realized pair of cyber-dominatrixes).

All of which is comfortingly familiar -- as is the pressure-hose style of Vachss' prose, an unending stream of murk, attitude and barely contained chaos. But the buildup yields an ambivalent return: Vision, the self-styled director/innovator whose "noir verite" approach leads to the girl's death, proves a faceless and unsatisfying villain. And as often happens in Burke's stories, the cold "payback" lacks the easy catharsis readers crave. Nonetheless, it's gratifying to have Burke back from the dead, so to speak, after his presumed demise in Dead and Gone and the awkward fish-out-of-water feel of Pain Management. And more satisfying still, Vachss again proves that he hasn't lost his acid touch as one of fiction's most brutal stylists; almost two full decades into the Burke series, he remains the compelling and unchallenged master of his own distinctive genre. That affirmation alone makes Only Child a worthy entry -- if, ultimately, a slightly disappointing one -- in the Burke canon.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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