Picks and Pans Review: Blossom

updated 07/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Andrew Vachss

The setting of this novel, the Indiana mill town of Merrillville, has seen better days. The streets, once clean and vibrant, are now garbage-strewn and eerie. The heavy smog from the steel mills covers the area like a wool blanket. Cold, remorseless violence rules the day.

Enter Burke, a child abuser's worst nightmare, on a mission to help an ex-cellmate of his named Virgil bail out of a jam. To Burke, a private detective, the terrain may be different (he usually stalks New York City for his particular prey), but the crimes there turn out to be just as heinous and just as worthy of his brand of justice.

As with other Burke novels in this excellent series (Flood, Strega, Blue Belle, Hard Candy), a woman is at the story's core: a prim, not-so-proper lady named Blossom. Burke, trying to clear Virgil's nephew of a series of murders, walks Merrillville's streets, searching out the truth, condemning those who treat children as personal playthings. He is their sole jury, and his judgment is as it should be—final.

Here he has cornered a molester: " 'I lit another smoke. 'The cops'll find the other car, Roger. They'll check the passenger manifest list for the airline. And they'll find your friend too. It won't be hard.'

" 'You can't tell them any of this. Attorney-client privilege. You said so."

"...'They'll find that car, Roger. And they'll find the kid's blood in the backseat. You're going inside. Again. For a long f——— time.'

" 'I'm sick .. . you can't.'

" 'You're a maggot. A maggot down for Rape One. Of a child. With force and violence. And you're a two-time loser. So it's the Bitch for you. Habitual offender. That's a life top in this state. But look at the good side: they don't do therapy on lifers. You'll be all alone in your cell, and you can paint your freak pictures in your mind all you want. You're done.' "

Vachss is a lawyer who deals only with child-abuse matters. In his Burke series, he has taken the frustration of that work, shed the shackles of blind justice and let loose with a literary assault on offending adults.

He writes staccato prose, a mixed bag of Raymond Chandler style, James Cain sleaze and a voice that's pure Vachss—strident, sharp, a muscular rage raining down on a society in need of a cleansing.

Blossom is by far his best work of fiction. Taking Burke off his home turf to deal with a midwestern kind of seediness was a brilliant move. Vachss's characters are, as always, carefully sketched, the dialogue is sharp, and the driven Burke is a creature you can't spend enough time with.

Many writers try to cover the same ground as Vachss. A handful are as good. None are better. For anyone interested in this kind of fiction. Andrew Vachss, sculpting pieces of art out of the scummiest wastes of humanity, must be read. (Knopf, $17.95)

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