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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Vachss's Latest is Set in a Small Town Filled with Strangers and Secrets

By Andrew Vachss
369 pages
ISBN: 0307907740
(Pantheon , June 11, 2013)

If you are the kind of reader who enjoys stories that suffer from serious credibility problems, Andrew Vachss' Aftershock should keep you happy.

It has Tiger Ko Khai, a cult-like secret organization of youthful rapists operating completely unnoticed in a small tourist community in coastal Oregon; a secret organization that is allowed to exist by a local milksop district attorney who refuses to prosecute its members, even in cases where there is evidence that would certainly result in a conviction; a secret organization that is discovered by a former French Foreign Legionnaire -- a contract killer who has lived in the community with his wife for several years, apparently without ever having been noticed by most of their neighbors or local merchants.

Like I said, if you like stories that have unlikely plots, Aftershock is the book for you.

For me, not so much.

The ex-mercenary, Dell Jackson, shares a home with his wife Dolly in a redoubt outside the village. Dolly, who was an international medic when she met helped dig shrapnel out of Jackson after a bungled legion op in Africa, has turned the place a home base for some local kids.

The complication comes when a local high school senior named Mary, a championship softball player bound for college, brings a gun to school and shoots several boys, killing one of them. Dolly becomes involved in Mary's defense, while Dell, working behind the scenes, ferrets out critical evidence that comes into play during the last third of the novel.

There are a few legitimate thrills along the way, a couple of good wisecracks and some decent dialog, and even a bit of character exposition. Unfortunately, these gems simply aren't enough to justify digging through the rest of the book.
Back in the 1980s  when he first began writing, I heard about Vachss, a lawyer who specializes in crimes against children. You can check his website here

Andrew Vachss's latest, Aftershock, has a plot with as many holes in it as a road sign in the Ozarks.
I liked the idea of a tough guy lawyer who sports an eye patch and goes to court to fight for kids who have been victimized by predators. I also liked the idea he was writing novels about a tough guy who does the same sort of thing, except for the courtroom bit.

But for some reason -- probably the lack of time and opportunity -- I never read any of his stuff.

Aftershock, Vachss's latest thriller, made me feel good about that.

This is not to say the novel is incompetently written. It is penned in classic noir style as a first person narrative from Jackson's perspective and is solidly constructed despite the fact that its basic premise is flawed in a number of ways we'll get to later. Though Dell Jackson is cut from the same olive drab material as Lee Child's hero, Jack Reacher, he is considerably more believable: Reacher can jump tall buildings with a single bound, outrun speeding locomotives and bend metal with his bare hands; Jackson just bends metal and runs fast; he doesn't jump, not even to conclusions.

Vachss has Jackson establish his tough guy cred within the first fifty pages of the novel by killing a pair of boozy deer hunters -- as a warning to others -- and dispatching a kid who tortures animals, solely because he believes the kid will eventually graduate to human victims.  

Dolly is sweet, although she is given short shrift in the book. The one other mildly interesting character is a mousy, inexperienced attorney that is appointed to represent the school yard killer and who grows from an undistinguished nebbish in the beginning of the book into a Clarence Darrow-style lion of the courtroom by its end.

Everybody else that populates this novel is a cardboard cutout substituting for an actual person, like one of those stand-up, life-sized Elvises you can pose for pictures with at the state fair. Even Mary and the sociopathic 15-year-old sister who serves as her evil counterpart are place-holders. Neither demonstrates as much personality as a bowl of day-old oatmeal.

I've read lots of book that had weak characters, unbelievable protagonists or feeble plots before, but rarely have I encountered all these flaws rolled up in one piece of literature.

The plot is particularly problematic because it unfolds in a tiny community where all the residents appear to be strangers to each other. I was born in Placerville, California, and I grew up in one-horse towns like Pollock Pines and Rifle, Colorado. I can tell you from personal experience that when you set the action of a book in a small community, you are dealing with some social dynamics that have to figure in your story: people who live in these places know just about everything there is to know about their neighbor's business -- even when the neighbors try to keep the details of their lives secret.

When a girl gets pregnant by her boyfriend out of wedlock, that fact becomes universally known within days of the rabbit dying -- and months before she begins to show. If someone gets a social disease, it goes out on the jungle drums right away. When a kid picks up a tag for drunk driving, there will be more information about it on the street in a 
few hours than you can find in the actual police report.

Let me make this absolutely clear: there is simply no way in God's green earth that a group of young men could operate an organization like Tiger Ko Khai in a town like the one in Vachss's book without it being Topic A at the dinner table after the second or third assault: Period; end of report.

Kids' reputations are ruined in these places for something as minor as smoking a joint; even if the first rule of rape club was never to talk about rape club, the word would get out -- very, very fast.

Second, it is established early that the district attorney in this community has never prosecuted one of the 39 rape or sexual assault cases in a four year period, including at least one in which the medical evidence made conviction a slam-dunk. In fact, this inaction is the reason Jackson takes a mildly vigilante stance: the DA never takes marginal cases to trial because he is only interested in those that result in convictions -- even if the convictions are for lesser charges.
Excuse me while I laugh myself sick.

I have been a journalist since 1973 and I can't recall ever encountering a prosecutor of any kind, at any level of justice, who would back away from trying a case where the evidence was strong enough to offer a solid chance of conviction. 

When people run for re-election as district attorneys, they almost invariably point to their conviction rate as evidence of their fitness for office, not the number of cases they have resolved by tossing charges overboard in order to get a defendant to plead guilty to something less. You will rarely hear a prosecutor mention his or her plea agreement rate. And when the campaign rolls out mailers and position papers, they will always include specific examples of cases where the prosecutor not only took the case to trial, but went "out front" to present the evidence against the suspect in person.

Besides, no defense attorney is going to negotiate a guilty plea to any charge unless he or she considers it likely that a conviction and sentence after trial would be worse. And the only way a prosecutor can keep that fear alive in the local defense bar is by walking into courtrooms and winning cases on a regular basis.

Consider the fact that 39 rapes have occurred in a four year period but none have been prosecuted in a small town. Is it likely that fact could be covered up? Is it likely that the District Attorney responsible for it wouldn't be the target of a recall campaign?

Not bloody likely.

The worst prosecutor I ever encountered in all my years of reporting on crime in California did, in fact, refuse to prosecute a very high number of cases. But even he nol prossed less than 40 percent of the cases presented to his staff. That would mean at least fifteen of those Tiger Ko Khai cases would end up in court. Once again, word would seep out.

The only way to accept this basic premise is to be willing to believe that the prosecutor's staff is hopelessly stupid and inept. And that is the other major flaw in the plot: the appointed defense attorney is a total tyro who apparently has never handled a single major crime case during the brief time he has been out of law school. He dresses like a drip and has neither gravitas nor serious trial experience. Yet he beats back a prosecution team with four people on it without breaking a sweat. Everything the prosecutors' say digs them in deeper, while the inexperienced defense attorney runs them ragged, both on the facts of the case and on courtroom procedure.

This is where Vachss's failure to create believable minor characters really sabotages his story: the prosecution team consists of a group of non-entities who aren't even given names. They are simply department store mannequins, not individuals -- despite the fact that all of them have more courtroom experience than Mary's lawyer does.

The result is that the court room confrontation that Vachss depends on to sell his story is a totally unbelievable one-sided mugging, like a particularly bad episode of the old Perry Mason television show, in which Hamilton Burger suffers a debilitating stroke and ends up slurring his words and speaking in non sequiturs throughout the trial.

On top of these conceptual and structural flaws is the fact that both the actual villains of the book are totally MIA.

The passive DA who fails to prosecute any members of the rape gang serves as the formal bad guy in this piece, but he appears only briefly in the book, so we are not given an opportunity to hear him explain his passivity or even suffer from its exposure. He never gets his comeuppance, and this lack eliminates the catharsis that a reader really needs to enjoy a grim novel like Aftershock.

Similarly, the founder of the rape gang makes only a cameo appearance in the book. We don't have any opportunity to despise him.

I still like the idea of Vachss, but Aftershock is too full of holes to recommend. To be fair, the author is best-known for his 18 novels about Burke, the ex-con who fights child abusers. I haven't taken a look at those, but in the coming months I plan to at least read Strega, the 1985 novel that kicked off the series, and Another Life, the 2008 book that brought it to its conclusion.

Perhaps I will find them more to my taste than I did Aftershock. If I do, I will let you all know about it.

Two nooses. . .

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