Saturday, May 4, 2013

Mortal Lock by Andrew Vachss (collection of 20 short stories and a screenplay)

Crime author Andrew Vachss is well known as a modern master of the hardboiled tale, and the twenty-one works in his latest collection, Mortal Lock, only serve to further that reputation.

Vachss is an attorney who only represents clients under 18, but his doppelganger shows up in "Veil's Visit" (co-written with friend and fellow Texan Joe R. Lansdale) to defend Hap Collins's best friend, serial crack-house arsonist Leonard Pine.

Veil's defense is as funny as it is clever, and Lansdale and Vachss blend their styles seamlessly. It is a treat for Lansdale fans and a welcome source of laughs in the midst of the surrounding darkness.

Because the stories in Mortal Lock are dark, no doubt about it. Vachss seems to specialize in portraying the worst sides of humanity, with only occasional dashes of hope included.

Lucky for the reader, what makes society poorer makes for gripping fiction. From beginning to end, the works in Mortal Lock — I would say "stories," but the final third is devoted to a screenplay adapting the "Underground" stories from Born Bad — are utterly engrossing.

And the characters are originals. Take the narrator of "Ghostwriter," one of two previously unpublished stories. He will do anything to be recognized for his writing, as long as it's for its quality. He doesn't care about the money; he still needs to realize his true ambition, no matter who gets in the way.

"Bloodlines" (source of the title phrase) is the other original in Mortal Lock. To fit in while he waits for his target to come along, a hit man learns the ins and outs of racing "trotters." The story and dialogue were reminiscent of some of the best work of Damon Runyon (a favorite of mine), and I loved learning about an unfamiliar topic while being entertained by two really great characters.

Other memorable characters that come to mind are the cagey old prisoner from "Seeding the Ground," and Rhino and Princess from "Profile" — which features series character Cross, protagonist of Blackjack and numerous short stories. "As the Crow Flies" stars the protagonists of Vachss's latest series, beginning with the novel Aftershock. The story starts out relatively low key, but that allows the ending to hit that much harder.

The writing in Mortal Lock, while it may seem sensational on the surface, is actually quite subtle. This comes out best in the several short-shorts scattered throughout. There are stories like "They're All Alike," "Corazón," "Savior," and "Dead Reliable" that save their gut punch to the end. And tales like "Sure Thing," "Passage to Paradise, and "Pig" may not deliver their full effect until the reader has left them for a while. Their power comes from what is not on the page, but in the final picture those words create in the mind.


Kelly Robinson said...

Looks like a neat collection. I haven't read any short stories by Vachss, but hey, if his name is on it ...

Craig Clarke said...

This was my first Vachss of any length, but I'm definitely on the lookout for more. Any recommendations?

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