Bad boy Burke (“born bad . . . born sad”) is back with a vengeance in the latest neo-noir from Vachss (Choice of Evil,1999, etc.).
But it looks as though the independent investigator with a “long criminal record and no known employment” is not long for this world. Burke takes shots to the head, rib cage, and eye when a half-million-dollar cash exchange for a Russian kid stolen ten years ago goes awry, leaving his long-time canine partner, Pansy, dead. It’s soon apparent that the whole rotten deal was a setup with Burke as the primary target. While finding Pansy’s killer is his initial reason for revenge, Burke also needs to know who wants him out of the way and why. He follows the trail from his morphine pump in a New York hospital to the blues bars of Chicago to the upscale neighborhoods of Portland, Oregon, with an additional excursion to the high mountains above Albuquerque, and a riveting final face-off ending in an inventive scam in Key West. In addition to his regulars—Max, Wolfe, Mole, and reliable hired assassin Wesley—Burke reunites with Byron, the endearing gay black pilot who shared Burke’s Biafran war experiences. And he picks up strong-minded Gem, a Cambodian refugee with a big heart and a bigger stomach (she wolfs down two omelets at a crack, and can clean her plate of a whole roasted chicken with sides of onion rings, roasted potatoes, and a slab of double-fudge cake). But it’s Burke’s childhood pal, Lune (for “lunatic”), in his New Mexico compound, who “sees the pattern in randomness” and guides him to the solution. In a typical Vachss scenario, Burke and Gem battle a nemesis from the past, only to find (what else?) supremacists and an island paradise for pedophiles.
As usual, it’s personal, very personal, for Burke throughout the brisk dialogue and fast-paced action of the sharply honed, knife-edged plot. Passion triumphs. Revenge rules.