Safe House by Andrew Vachss
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"First conviction for gang-fighting, [...] Age thirteen. [...] attempted murder with a handgun. Subsequent adult prison sentences for armed robbery, hijacking, and assault with intent."
I like to alternate between the so-called serious books and pure entertainment reads, and I chose Andrew Vachss' novel Safe House" (1998) as a breather between critically acclaimed works by J.M. Coetzee and Helen Garner. Mr. Vachss is a lawyer specializing in child protection and has experience as a federal investigator and social services caseworker; this experience clearly shows in the novel, which contains compelling stories of women's abuse. Safe House, whose main theme is the fight against stalkers, is the tenth book in the Burke series. Since I have not read any other entries in the set I have had some difficulties getting into the novel: its extensive menagerie of characters is intimidating to someone who is not a Vachss' reader.
In the novel - and presumably in the whole series - Burke, an ex-convict (see the epigraph) and a career criminal available for hire, is a force for good. He is helping his old prison pal, Hercules, who has gotten into trouble while doing a job for a nebulous organization that assists stalking victims. Hired by Crystal Beth, an active member of the organization, Burke works with her to find a dangerous abuser of women, who feels untouchable because of his connections to law enforcement. Burke and Crystal - soon linked not only by a common purpose but also mutual attraction - work in a world where the distinctions between law and crime are blurred and the main actors have connections to both sides.
The theme of stalking and women abuse is important and timely. The reader has no doubts that the horror stories which Crystal Beth and her co-workers share with Burke are based on common real-life events. On the other hand, most everything else in the novel is subpar. The protagonists are not real people, they are just devices to carry the plot, caricatures that exist only on paper. The silliest feature of the novel is Burke's unrelenting quest to be cool and to demonstrate the absolute self-control. His utter cool is utterly ridiculous. The apotheosis of coolness becomes the main motif of the novel at the expense of plausible psychology and realistic grounding of the plot in social issues.
One and three quarter stars.
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