If you start here with the Burke series then you’re joining the action near the end of the innings. This is the 16th book to feature the relentless urban outlaw, and the no-punches-pulled series draws to a close just a couple of books hereafter with the 18th episode. The series extends over almost a full quarter century from the late 1980s onward, and is as hard-boiled and bleak as any blood-soaked Scandinavian landscape.
Set in the lawless backstreets of modern urban America, (no first name) Burke is hired to find a missing woman but his informal investigation is derailed almost immediately. Pretty soon it’s obvious that there’s a hunter-killer team aimed directly at him. If you have read followed the earlier misadventures of Andrew Vachss’ antihero, then you’ll know what to expect with this latest instalment and you’ll get a buzz out of joining Burke on his latest nasty escapade in the land of city shadows.
If you haven’t read any earlier Burke books then this is not the place to start. Go back and find the earliest ones, when Burke was an unofficial PI working from a hidden office, when he surfed the underworld and when the plot drove more of the action in each novel. Towards the end of the series, a Burke book is like a roll call of ghosts from the past; the dregs of Burke’s appalling upbringing at the hands of abusers within the childcare system; his sustained grief over the loss of his partner; his tight-knit family of misfits; his brutal hatred of the ‘humans’ who ruin children and lives. If you don’t know the background then you’ll drown in all the details, and you’ll miss the subtle rewards of knowing that Max the Silent can kill as easily as he can place a bet on a good trotter, or that Mama’s soup should never be ignored.
The last few Burke books have been pretty similar; by the time you’ve gone through all the namechecks and routines of a long-established series, there ain’t so much room for plot. Nor does Andrew Vachss choose to develop a new storyline; the Burke books exist to remind us over and again that there are terrible people still doing terrible things, and Vachss is happy to let his characters re-tread the same old ground of previous episodes. Yet there’s just enough development to keep our interest – Burke’s still listens to the blues but his tastes are changing; Wolfe may or may not give him another chance – and Vachss’ writing is still sharp enough in places to make even a seasoned reader wince.
Don’t read the Burke books if you’re looking for a happy ending or a quick thrill. But give them a go if you want to take a look in a mirror held up to modern society, and if you want to understand a complex group of misfit characters welded together in adversity. The writing is rapid and the pace is quick – you may sometimes be confused by the slang or the unspoken messages, but the experience can become an addictive one.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Mask Market is available in hardcover, paperback and ebook editions