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Blood on the Tracks

  Two Trains Running
Andrew Vachss
Pantheon, 2005
Rating: 3.7

Posted: September 19, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Two Trains Running isn't Andrew Vachss' first departure from his popular series of crime novels featuring the battle-scarred avenger Burke. But it is his most substantial departure -- at least on the surface. Focused on the goings-on in the fictional town of Locke City during a two-week period in 1959, Two Trains attempts to pinpoint the exact moment in time when history pivoted into the present. But while its milieu and setting are a definite change of pace, there's much to this ambitious mini-epic that will feel familiar to fans of Vachss' other fiction.

To be sure, there's more than a little of the ultra-cautious, ever-meticulous Burke in the enigmatic Walker Dett, whose arrival in Locke City spurs the book into action. Dett may not be a child-abuse survivor on a mission to protect children, but he's as intense an anti-hero as Vachss has created -- and he is on a mission. He's a hit man hired by Locke City's homegrown crime boss, the wheelchair-bound Royal Beaumont, to protect his interests as various criminal forces (and the federal government) grow more interested in the city. As his oh-so-symbolic handle (a debt, walking) makes clear, however, he has his own agenda.

If that gives you the impression that Two Trains Running is a straightforward crime novel, albeit one of a different color -- well, it isn't. Vachss lays the book out in brief chapters stamped with the date and time, military-style, shifting his point of view between any number of characters -- Dett; Beaumont; the sister with whom he has an incestuous relationship; Irish and Italian mobsters looking to wrest Locke City away from Beaumont's control; young gang members interested in protecting their turf; and the gun-running federal assets looking to manipulate them, among others -- without settling too comfortably into any of them.

These third-person "surveillance opportunities" allow the reader to slowly piece together the pieces of Vachss' puzzle, which involves organized crime figures working together to swing an upcoming presidential election, and the stoking by mysterious figures of thickening racial tensions. Vachss has precise ideas about how events in 1959 led to the world we inhabit today. While no one would accuse the author of being a conspiracy nut -- he's too clear-eyed for that -- it's clear he doesn't believe that our racial and political climate is an accident. (The title alludes to this, hinting at a separate undercurrent to our accepted history.) Anyone who's read and appreciated James Ellroy's American Tabloid will feel comfortable in Vachss' carefully thought-out world.

Which isn't to say that Trains arrives at its final destination without a couple of rough spots. Dett's characterization seems a bit off at first -- as careful as he is, he's certainly free enough with his name. And when we learn why he's doing what he's doing, the book takes an abrupt left turn from its hard-boiled atmosphere (let's just say that fans of John Connolly's fantasy-influenced work will be quicker to accept Dett's "origin"). And when Dett and his accomplices roll into action late in the game, there's a nagging lack of narrative tension and cohesion.

Still, there's much to admire about Two Trains Running. Vachss vividly sketches his main players, including the waitress with whom Dett shares a brief romance, and the noble Beaumont, whose actions reveal a more complex figure than we originally suspect. And in its examination of the roots of modern ills, it provides much food for thought. Vachss isn't one to spell everything out in tidy packages for his readers, so a second read-through might help to solidify certain points. But for those willing to do the work, Trains does offer intriguing rewards. And even diehard fans of Vachss' Burke books will admire the author's desire to broaden both his scope and his reach.

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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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