First novel about a New York private eye and seam artist called Burke, which clearly has a strong future and whose only contender for real class this season is T. Jefferson Parker's debut thriller Laguna Heat (p. 666). Besides being equally writerly (one about California and one Manhattan), both authors show richly convincing familiarity with the detective's trade. Vachss is setting Burke in place for a series, establishing all the landmarks by which we will instantly be at home with Burke on his next appearance. These include a gigantic 140-pound mastiff, Pansy, the vicious but lovable guard dog who lives in Burke's seedy office and uses the now fragrant roof for a toilet; Burke's mute Chinese helper Max the Silent, also known as Silent Dragon, the world's greatest karate killer; Burke's male transvestite/working-prostitute friend Michelle, who doubles as Burke's female secretary when needed; Burke's $40,000 1970 Plymouth, a bulletproof lethal fantasy on wheels, so silent it moves like smoke through fog; Burke's automobile junkyard parts dealer, an engineering genius called The Mole, who lives in a spotless apartment under a pile of dead cars; Maurice, Burke's omniscient bookie; and Burke's varied scams, including his bootleg phone jacked into the line of the stoned hippies who live below him, the money he rakes in from a mail service for hopeful mercenaries, and his dealings in new license plates, passports, discharge papers from the army, draft cards, social-security cards, firearm permits, marriage licenses, drivers' licenses and, well, what do you need? Credit cards? Burke, under one of his other names, now owes American Express over $3,500 on his gold card, and the company is threatening to wreck his credit rating, whoever he is today. Burke's first case in print finds him helping the sexy, tiny but utterly deadly karate expert called Flood (female). An orphan like Burke, Flood has a best friend whose small daughter has been raped and strangled by a crazed Vietnam vet called Cobra, all of whose victims are children. Burke's hunt takes us through a variety of Manhattan's sleaze parlors before he discovers that he's looking for Goldor, a tremendously successful pornographer/psychopath/murderer who sells snuff films in which he tortures, violates and kills women and children. Along the way, Burke and Flood fall briefly in love and have a variety of workouts on the mat. For all the excitement, fun and variety Vachss offers, his sharply knowing but hyper oddball characters are almost necessarily two-dimensional, while the blistering karate fights have an unavoidable comic-strip tang--and silliness. Out in California, Parker is using three-dimensional characters and plotting that carries tragic weight, which shows that a really adult thriller is possible. After a wonderfully impressive start, it's reasonable to expect that Vachss' full powers still lie ahead as he comes to grips with the deeper possibilities of the genre.