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Down Comforter

  Down Here
Andrew Vachss
Alfred A. Knopf, 2004
Rating: 4.2

Posted: June 2, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Andrew Vachss' hard-boiled con Burke can be a hard character to grow comfortable with. His flinty contempt for the "civilians" of the 9-to-5 world, the darkly paranoiac tinge of his careful dealings with anyone not immediately inside his inner circle and the cold implacability with which he stalks those who prey on children -- all of these traits preclude easy empathy. Even when we're reminded that Burke himself was long ago a victim of predators, our sympathies collide with the often brutal path he's chosen.

But Vachss does occasionally allow us a glimpse of the hardened, buried humanity at Burke's core, and never more so than in Down Here. The stakes are always personal when Burke investigates some heinous act against a child he doesn't even know, but the mission at the core of Down Here is personal in a different way: Eva Wolfe, the tough former prosecutor turned underground information broker for whom Burke has long held a silent torch, is framed for the attempted murder of a serial rapist she put away years before. Burke dives into the case with his intensity, and not just because Wolfe is a fellow fighter in his war.

The case against Wolfe is flimsy, and Burke suspects that the government is keeping it alive as a smokescreen to detract attention from some shadowy deal they've worked out with the rapist. In the course of his investigation, Burke interviews several of the rapist's victims, and the sensitivity he shows them as fellow victims fleshes out his humanity. By contrast, the book's requisite romance is both tender and calculated; Burke poses as a journalist to get close to the rapist's sister, and although the affection he shows her is real, we never forget that he's using her as a means to an end, an unfortunate but acceptable casualty in his war.

The doomed romance and the romance that never will be aside, Down Here underscores the particular brand of love that Burke shares with his adopted "family" of fellow hustlers. He's never happier than when he's surrounded by his misfit crew (including the deadly Mongol Max the Silent; the post-operative transsexual Michelle; the technologically brilliant but emotionally closed recluse the Mole; the rhyme-spouting Prof; and Mama, the steely matron of this makeshift clan). And in turn, they patiently oblige him in his mission to clear Wolfe's name, despite the apparent lack of a financial payoff for them (this is a family of hustlers, after all).

Fortunately for Burke's crew, a payoff does eventually come, although as is too often the case in Vachss' novels, the accompanying climax is both rushed and anti-climactic. But Vachss' command of this concrete-hard terrain makes the convoluted plot mechanics forgivable. One doesn't read Vachss for the airtight plots; like Chandler, one reads him for his peerless way with terse dialogue, bleak atmosphere and gut-level dedication to a singular code of living. In that sense, Vachss is Chandler's true heir, forging his own distinct path down the shadowy, menacing alleyways of noir fiction.

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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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