October 03, 1988 12:00 PM

by Andrew Vachss

In Vachss’s third novel about the vigilante hero known only as Burke, the protagonist meets a martial-arts psychopath who is always willing to get into a fight to the death on a moment’s notice. Known as Mortay (derived from muerte, the Spanish word for death), he is also connected with the Ghost Van, a hit-and-run machine that snipes at young hookers in the shadowy depths of Manhattan. Burke’s ally in this fast-paced if sometimes disturbing book is Belle, a child-abuse victim who leaves the swamps of Florida to escape her incestuous father. Vachss’s prose is, as always, sparse and effective as he draws images of the seamiest sides of Gotham: “Islands of light where flesh waited to take your money—pools of darkness where wolf packs waited to take your life. Something else out there too. Something that would make the wolves step aside when it walked.” In his first two novels, Flood and Strega, Vachss used lurid backdrops as a means to titillate while revealing horrible truths about child abuse. Here, the relentless sex scenes between Burke and Belle are gratuitous. Still, Vachss, a Manhattan lawyer who represents abused kids, has a unique talent for examining the darkest sides of life and telling a compelling story, all in one discomfiting package. (Knopf, $15.95)

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