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BOOK REVIEWS: April 1999
By Paula Guran

A CHOICE OF EVIL
Andrew Vachss
Knopf/ $23/ 304p
ISBN: 0-375-40647-6
(Now available in paperback)

book cover Nothing gets to the stone-cold, steel-souled criminal/man-for-hire Burke -- except any threat to his self-chosen family. His fierce tribal loyalties include his Neapolitan mastiff partner Pansy. When the cops raid his hide-out home and take the dog into custody, Burke and his people free Pansy and a canine cohort from the animal shelter with the aplomb of professional terrorists. With Pansy restored to his side, the now-homeless Burke takes a step closer toward commitment to Crystal Beth, the woman of "purpose" with whom he aligned previously in Safe House. Life, however, is never happily resolved for Burke. The bisexual Crystal Beth attends a protest rally against gay bashing and is gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Burke can't come up with a clue to avenge his woman's murder and sinks close to the depressive state he calls "The Zero." Meanwhile, someone else goes after the bad guys in general. A mysterious killer, "Homo Erectus," starts taking down homosexual haters with a vengeance. His victims soon include a prominent pedophilia activist and Erectus begins delivering a message that separates homosexuals from pedophiles with deadly impact. The police want Homo Erectus, but those that lionize him also want to find him. They plan to help the killer disappear before the cops can grab him and Burke is hired to bring Homo Erectus to safety. Things get weird as the supposedly dead professional assassin Wesley -- a pivotal figure in Burke's history -- seems to be involved, or perhaps, it is hinted, Erectus is trying to raise him from the dead. The stakes get higher when the killer blows up an entire planeload of perverts bound for a "kiddie-sex tour" of Southeast Asia. Burke, assisted by a teen cybersleuth, finds a way to correspond with Homo Erectus and the story never slows, even as it careens into a computer screen narrative from the killer. Burke is assisted in various ways by the ongoing characters of his "family," including the redheaded witch Strega. An outsider is also involved -- Nadine, a self-styled sexually dominant lesbian who is almost as intent on getting into Burke's pants as she is on meeting the killer (whom she professes to love.) Nadine is an irritant to the reader as she never rings quite as true as Vachss's other characters. This flaw is eventually resolved when the killer is finally confronted in the flesh, but it slightly mars an otherwise fascinating book. Perhaps not as tightly plotted as Vachss's best Burke to date, Safe House, Choice of Evil still more than serves the author's constant purpose of exposing real evil while engaging readers with his savagely splendid dark fiction. Readers well-acquainted with Burke as well as those who are just now discovering the Cimmerian world he inhabits will be both disquieted and delighted by this latest from Vachss, one of the few writers around who understands the necessity -- and the art -- of doing both.

SAFE HOUSE
Andrew Vachss
Vintage Crime-Black Lizard/ $12/ 304p.
ISBN 0-375-70074-9

book cover A big dumb blond -- a muscle-bound prison friend named Hercules -- needs Burke's help. Hired to lean on a stalker and scare him off his victim, Herk has inadvertently murdered the mark. Obligation and honor demand that Burke and his tribe of urban warriors do their best to pull the lug out of a bad situation. Looking to discover more about the set-up that ensnared his friend, Burke quickly signs on with Crystal Beth, the woman who had hired Herk and who runs a shadowy network that protects abused women. His job starts out as protection for a woman being stalked by her neo-Nazi husband. Nothing is easy in Burke's life or Vachss's fiction and the stalker turns out to have a powerful protector himself. Soon Burke and Herk and everyone else are dealing with white supremacists ready to explosively bring down democracy . Vachss plots this one as tight as a hooker's skirt and as smooth as a pimp's promises. His commanding characterization makes Burke is so cold he's hot and the supporting crew is just as compelling. Safe House is packed with scintillating style, indelible imagery, and intense empathy -- maybe the best yet from a writer of raw power and passionate fervor.

BRASS
Robert. J. Conley
Leisure/ $5.50/ 310p
ISBN: 0-8439-4505-2<

book cover The world does not need another horror novel based on the reworking of an old Indian legend -- unless it offers the vibrancy and originality of this one. Ancient stories tell of Untsaiyi -- Brass -- a demi-god who lived before recorded history. Captured by Thunder and his sons, the gambling, shapechanging Brass is impaled by a great stake through his chest and imprisoned on the ocean floor. Two crows are set to guard where he lies -- Kugunyi, the "Crow Place." There Brass remains until the present-day U. S. Army Corps of Engineers start a beach renovation project by pulling the pole out. Set free after untold millennia, Brass enters the modern world frightened, confused, and overwhelmingly powerful. He can change into any creature he wishes and kills humans whenever they impede him. Yet he is glad to be among humans again, as inexplicable as they and the world have become. He soon finds himself an ally and mate in the teen-aged Judith Ann and they make their way to the best place in America any gambler could want to be -- Las Vegas. Robert J. Conley has a sure hand with his straight-ahead, fast-paced, no-frills writing and makes the most of his misunderstood and misunderstanding monster. He pokes slyly at white culture with Cherokee wit, but with no hint of either didacticism or false ennoblement of Native Americans. Both poignant and playful, Brassis a winner. P>


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