The trouble with hardboiled fiction is that it's so ripe for parody. Even at its best this style of writing is so very unselfconscious, so glaringly stripped down--yeah, I know the all the words, it seems to be saying, but I'm so tough I only need to use a few of them. Sometimes that works. Chandler. Cain. Hammett. The guys who invented the genre and worked in its first generation.
And the trouble with neo-hardboiled fiction is that layered on top of that lurking urge to parody is our contemporary age's blasted worship of all things meta, our adoration of all things self-referential. There are certainly some who rise above; Walter Mosley writes in a beautiful contemporary hardboiled style, one all his own which doesn't eschew real vocabulary and rich description, and which doesn't wink at the reader. Andrew Vachss, I have just learned, can make that same claim.
Most of Vachss crime novels center on Burke--just the one name--an ex-con, unlicensed private investigator, career criminal, Child of the Secret. ("Children of the Secret" is a term coined by Vachss,who has been active in both child and animal protection; they are abused children [and erstwhile children] who have been victimized but never experienced justice.) Burke has put together a family of these people--and dogs--and he protects them more ferociously than he protects himself.
Down in the Zero finds Burke called out to the suburbs of Connecticut by Randy, the son of a woman he had known briefly many years before. The boy--a feckless nineteen year old--is terrified by a rash of suicides among his peers; he thinks that the deaths were only made to look like suicides, and that he may be a future target. Burke, who looks into the Zero (the abyss, the blackness on the other side, the nothingness of non-existence) on a regular basis feels the boy's pain and fear more than he wants to admit, so he agrees to help him out.
During the course of his investigation Burke unearths some really nasty little secrets not very well buried beneath the veneer of genteel respectability for which Connecticut suburbs are so well known. He meets a pair of dominatrix sisters, learns that there is a highly specialized sex club in this small town, and discovers a blackmail ring.
Burke also--using nothing more than his own ability to be himself and to cut through the shit--helps Randy start to narrow in on some meaning in life, and to become an actual person. Randy even gets a new name, in a passage of male-bonding so beautiful I cried. "'We give you a name, mahn,' Clarence said, caught up in the idea. 'Like a baptism.'....That night didn't have a chance against the kid's smile." Oh, and the name is Sonny, because there "ain't but two names for the outlaw game...It's Junior. Or Sonny."
The plot is extremely intricate, with several seemingly unrelated threads: an awful lot is packed into a mere 259 pages. Vachss's writing is a revelation; he keeps his stripped down style well on the right side of that parody line, and if he's being meta about anything, well, this reader certainly didn't pick up on it. His prose is choppy and blunt; Vachss is a big fan of the ellipsis and the dash, and he uses them to great effect.
At the time of the publication of Down in the Zero, 1994, Andrew Vachss already had more than a half dozen novels under his belt. I hadn't read any of them and now, fifteen years later, I've only just read Down in the Zero. I won't wait fifteen years before picking up more of his books, though.