A member of Burke's family is killed in a drive-by shooting at a gay rally. Burke wants to find the killer, of course, and soon an anonymous, supernaturally talented assassin is killing homophobes and pedophiles. The killer's crusade apparently has been triggered by the attack on the rally, but he quickly expands his targets from gay-bashers to anyone remotely anti-homosexual. That is to say, he includes pedophiles, who, as he rightly points out, are not homosexuals but power freaks. (Would you call a man who rapes little girls 'a heterosexual child abuser'?) The police try to suspect Burke as the killer, but it's not his style. Burke is hired by a group of homosexuals to find the killer and help him leave the country.
I've read all the Burke novels since discovering the extraordinary Flood and Strega in paperback. Vachss is one of those writers I buy in hardcover as a conscious tithing to a good person with a good cause. (See the endnote below, however.) The books are uneven, ranging from the brilliance of Flood and Strega to forgettable walk-throughs like Footsteps of the Hawk. I've read them all: once for the experience and then, with the best of them, again and again. Choice of Evil is a middle-ground sort of book, not the best, not the worst. There is a comfortable, formulaic predictability about the plots lately, and it may wear thin if we don't see some new ground soon.
The keys here are a brilliant sociopath, Burke's dead homeboy Wesley, and a strangely twisted woman, a butch lesbian who spends most her time with Burke trying to get him to come on to her. The killer, who dubs himself 'Homo Erectus', kills efficiently and creatively. He chooses his targets so well that we are tempted to cheer his vigilantism. Everybody he kills in the jihad, including an entire planeload of 'sightseers' on their way to a special kind of tour in Thailand, deserve it.
Burke manages to contact him, and the story takes a strange and unsatisfying turn as the mad genius tells his own story. His 'crusade' is a sociopathic game, and his first victims, whom he did not claim publicly, were kidnapped children. The plot strains at this point, because Burke's reaction at first inconsistent with his own values. Burke is astonished by the guy's brilliance more than he is repelled by his evil. It took two readings to be sure Vachss realizes that this self-styled genius is a pompous, pedantic nerd; that Burke doesn't realize it when we do seems strange. The long passages in which the killer narrates his descent into the art of murder drag the story to a grinding halt.
Things you would expect to matter are strangely lifeless in this novel, and questions that seem important don't get answered. The guy has inflicted children to an ultimate child abuse: kidnapping and murder. To hear him tell it, the children were never maltreated and were killed painlessly. Again, it takes careful reading to determine that neither Burke nor Vachss buys this. Burke says that he admires Wesley, the ultimate hired killer, more than he does this guy, but it's a shock that he admires him at all. His growing fascination with Strega, on the other hand, adds something new and consistent to the Burke world, a element repelling but attractive at the same time.
When Burke comes around to understanding the killer, it is dispassionately, with a few words to his young computer hacker assistant (a wonderful character named Xyla because "'if it weren't for Xylocaine, she'd'a never been born"). The worst people, he tells her, are the ones who choose evil. The thieves, the murderers who kill to protect themselves from jail, the ones who commit crimes of passion and despair, their choice seems good to them. But the pedophiles, the rapists, they choose evil for its sake, because they want it. They do not accept the simple tenet, "Cause no unnecessary pain." Unfortunately, while this view is persuasive, it doesn't stand up to close scrutiny.
And the end is rather flat, a face-to-face reminiscent of False Allegations, concluded with a sketchy round of the trademark Burke team fireworks. All in all, Choice of Evil is a downhill book, one that doesn't feel like it was written with much passion or commitment. The best moment in the story is the first chapter, when the Burke team mobilizes to rescue Pansy from the pound. The worst moment, beyond arguing, is that melodramatic, disengaged conclusion, utterly lacking the passion and honesty of the similar scene in, say, Sacrifice. We've seen Vachss' brilliant, rich sociopaths before: Goldor in Flood, the villain of False Allegations, the wealthy pedophile who turns up in Flood and Sacrifice. False Allegations even concludes with a similar surprise relationship of the villain to another key character (I'm trying to give nothing away about either book). This guy, Homo Erectus, who never even has a name, just isn't even very frightening. Dangerous, yes, but he lacks the single-mindedness and persuasive worldview of his predecessors. And yet Burke falls for his rhetoric briefly.
I would like to hear Vachss talk about Choice of Evil, and I have a couple of questions I'd like to ask, if that occasion sould arise. He was doing some odd, unfinished, uncharacteristic things here. The killer's last child victim was a girl named Angelique. Her family called her 'Angel' and her friends called her 'Zoe': A to Z, angel to animal. And the woman who is the key to the novel is named Nadine: 'Little Nothing.' Startling, a dead end, and strangely out-of-place in these fierce, artless books.
Baby Boy Burke's last ten years have been an interesting process to observe. His crew remains an endearing bunch of dangerous grotesques. But like Beckett characters, they just go on. Max has not changed or grown in ten years. Terry has grown up, but kids do. Strega has turned into a potential love interest, not because she has changed, but because Burke's understanding of her has. Never part of the family, she remains with us, since the second book, appearing and disappearing, the only present woman with enduring sexual power over Burke, not so much evil as amoral, a force of nature as predictable and mysterious as a witch. Significantly, Strega does not fit the body type of Burke's real loves any more than she fits the personality type; she is small, compact, lithe. All the Burke women have been a bit overweight, sensual guitars.
There is a hint, in the final paragraph of the novel, that the larger story is going somewhere, a place less grim and yet consistent with what's gone before in the previous novels. It has to go somewhere, and soon. The formulas are satisfying but threadbare, as tenuously appealing as the same food at the same restaurant. Not all of Burke's big-bottomed beloveds are dead, but it's a high-risk role. We need closure, and some folding backward of the story. Where is Flood? Or Blossom? What if someone we love (Max, Michelle, Terry, Mole, the Prof, Mama, Mac, Flower or even, an intriguing twist, Strega) dies? For all his hardness, Vachss hasn't ventured into that ground.
I found myself comparing Burke to his female counterpart, Carol O'Connell's Kathy Mallory. It's time, I think, for some of the circles to close. Mallory has lost people we cared about. She went looking for her past, found it, and dealt with it. Burke's dark hints are wearing thin. He was an abused child. Ok. Got it. But was he just one of a million abused children, or does he have a story? Maybe it's time for that story.
An interesting sidenote: Alfred Knopf is the press that published American Psycho with much righteous huffing and puffing (and pocket pool with the wallet) over freedom of speech, rather like a pedophile pimp using 'free love' to justify selling rim jobs from little boys. Personally, I'm disappointed that Vachss gave them his business. Now that AP is being made into a movie, Knopf and the author stand to make another pile of money while a new gang of pimps, the Hollywood gang, queue up to the trough. For anyone but Vachss, I'd refuse to buy this book, just like I don't buy Thai.