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Andrew Vachss (1942-2021)

January 11, 2022

I was saddened to learn Andrew Vachss died on December 27th. An attorney, author and activist, Vachss’s series of hardboiled novels featuring Burke (ex-con private investigator, survivalist and vigilante) became classics of the crime genre.

I interviewed Vachss in May of last year. It was for a book which I am currently writing on James Ellroy. Vachss and Ellroy were friends from the mid-80s to the early 90s. Setting up the interview was like a scenario out of one Vachss’s novels: I had to mail a letter to a PO Box address in Chicago to contact him, once I passed that hurdle, Vachss wouldn’t agree to the interview until Ellroy had given his permission. Ellroy kindly wrote to Vachss, initiating their first contact in thirty years, giving his blessing for the interview.

I finally spoke to Vachss by phone on a Sunday. He was in his law office in New York and explained to me that he could be called away at any moment if a legal issue arose that required his attention. I was floored by his hectic schedule considering this was a man in his late seventies. It’s hard to believe, only seven months later, he is not with us anymore.

Vachss died two days before Ghislaine Maxwell was convicted on five counts of sex offences. It was a shame Vachss didn’t live to see it. The more powerful the abuser, the more he seemed to relish in their downfall. Take for example, his analysis of the Roman Polanski/Samantha Gailey case, which is completely unencumbered by Polanski’s exalted reputation in the Arts. It was Vachss’s hard work and dedication that led to President Clinton signing the National Child Protection Act into law, otherwise known as the ‘Oprah Bill’. Photo below is courtesy of Mike Ripley.

Andrew Vachss (back row with an eye patch), Oprah Winfrey and President Clinton

Thank you Andrew Vachss for everything you did. It was an honour to talk to you.

Postscript: I’ve dug up a blurb Vachss wrote for the first edition of The Black Dahlia. It’s quintessential Vachss:

THE BLACK DAHLIA hits you like Chinatown directed by Caryl Chessman. With it, James Ellroy surges to the forefront of contemporary American mystery fiction—Krafft-Ebing in one hand, a chainsaw in the other.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    January 12, 2022 1:01 am

    Two Trains Running is the only Vachss novel that I’ve read but it was an interesting variation of the Red Harvest scenario. I think it was Jason Carter who told a great story on this site about Ellroy claiming ( in typical Ellroy fashion) that Vachss’ eyepatch alternated between eyes every time Ellroy saw him!

    And nice teaser for the upcoming book!

    • January 12, 2022 8:37 am

      Thanks Dan, my rewrite is due in at the end of this month and I think not too long after that we will finally be in a place where we can make an announcement. I can’t wait to share it with the readers here, in the Ellroysphere and the wider world.

  2. John A. Curley permalink
    January 16, 2022 9:08 pm

    Steve, he was my friend and my mentor. Thank you for writing this. BUT I will tell you this, his reaction to Maxwell might have surprised you. I am writing this because in my eyes, he teaches us still. The points in my conversations with him about Epstein: Who cares if he killed himself? The main question that no one is asking is What did he give up for the sweetheart plea deal he got the first time. Everything he was arrested for, they *already* knew about. What did he give up for that sweet heart plea deal he got first time around? There is no prosecutor anywhere that would have passed on the fame and notoriety of prosecuting some of the big names he would have given. What he lkely would have said about Maxwell is that it was a show and if nothing came out of it except her conviction it was next to worthless. He also said the entire Epstein thing was a distraction. All anyone cared about was did he kill himself. His question would be What is everyone doing about the vast number of Epsteins out there doing what he did? As to why the patch may have switched if you find the interview about why he was no longer wearing it you’d have your answer there.

    • January 17, 2022 1:27 pm

      Hi John, thanks. It was an honour to speak to Andrew. Those are fascinating points about Epstein and Maxwell. I think this story will run and run and there is so much more to discover. It’s sad we don’t have Vachss around to ask these questions anymore, but it is good that you are continuing his work. The comment about the eyepatch was from a conversation I wasn’t privy to. When I asked Ellroy about Vachss he replied ‘I admire him greatly’, and Ellroy doesn’t give out compliments lightly.

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