Author-investigator Andrew Vachss’s crusades on behalf of abused children—both in life and in fiction—have earned the native New Yorker a reputation that’s equal parts Curtis Sliwa and James Ellroy (with a little Charles Bronson thrown in). For decades, he’s been a triple threat against child exploitation: a lawyer-prosecutor representing victims, a controversial investigator of abuse, and a writer of potboilers in which a P.I. named Burke avenges said atrocities. But his new thriller, Two Trains Running (Pantheon; $25), is no Burke book. A sweeping fifties gangster novel with shadings of Dashiell Hammett, it’s not just a departure from Vachss’s lifelong fixation, it’s also his first real foray into serious literature.
Vachss has called the early potboilers his “Trojan horse,” a hollow vessel for a single social issue. But Two Trains Running is more ambitious—although it also includes plenty of Da Vinci Code–style paranoiac apocrypha, like the notion that the FBI gave Al Capone syphilis. “This is my Sunday punch,” Vachss explains. “I worked years and years on this sucker. Everything else was laser shots, very hyperfocused. Here, I wanted to write a book that’s not just a real fast river but has a very strong undercurrent. If you don’t understand that, you’re just a passenger on a raft.”
Vachss’s career has been a bit of a Sunday punch itself. Starting out as a federal investigator into venereal disease, Vachss soon set his sights on fighting child abuse and went solo, working cases out of a Chinese restaurant. Ten years later, he began writing about Burke—partly to finance his unusual job as a freelance prosecutor. Vachss’s vigilante anti-heroes take a rather visceral approach to the outrages they witness (one character made a meal of pedophiles’ blood), but the lawyer himself has been considerably more restrained—and more effective. His work led to Clinton’s landmark National Child Protection Act.
Fans of Vachss’s more crusading thrillers might not know what to make of his new historical tale of gang warfare in a midwestern border town. “Listen, some people are gonna say I’ve got no business venturing into literature,” says Vachss. “Lazy readers are gonna think that I’ve abandoned what I’ve devoted my life to, and I’m prepared for that. But it’s the sum total of everything that I learned over all these years. Without question I’ve either got to be a writer or I fail.”
A couple of years ago, Vachss and his sex-crimes-prosecutor wife moved out of their heavily fortified, Rottweiler-guarded Queens house (they have dangerous enemies) to Portland, Oregon—even before he left the city behind in his fiction. “But I’m coming home soon,” he says. “I miss it every day, painfully.” He’s got plenty to say about New York, much of it negative—Manhattan’s being turned into “Trumpville,” for instance. But he will say one nice thing. “We’re not running around doing this insane boosterism you see in Portland. What I always wrote about New York is the way a working-class New Yorker feels about it. And that hasn’t changed.”