Urban Renewal by Andrew Vachss
In a long life, I’ve known a number of career criminals including one charged with murder. As people to meet in pubs and ordinary social settings, they are remarkably unremarkable. But in the right context, of course, they do radiate a certain menace. So books like Urban Renewal by Andrew Vachss (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2014) are always interesting because they walk the narrow moral line for authors in that they describe the ordinariness of these people’s lives interspersed by often cold-blooded outbursts of crime. To that extent, they reflect an underlying reality about life. Even the most deadly killers have families and friends. When they are not out on a job, they like to relax and do boring stuff. Indeed, it’s this time of being human that grounds them. Without this, they would be like mad dogs and bark so long and loud that even the most dense detective in the city would be able to identify them. It’s the quiet ones you never see coming.
For the author, there’s a dilemma. If the villain as protagonist is painted as completely “evil”, the majority of readers might find the reading exercise fascinating but only in a macabre way, i.e. many horror novels trade on the inherent evil of key characters to create the appropriate emotional response. But the more redeeming character features the author allows the protagonist, the less intimidating he or she becomes. At an intermediate stage this leads us to the vigilante. This is a socially useful individual who uses extralegal strategies to defeat the real evil around him. As readers, we’re invited to forgive the fact he or she kills the really bad guys because this activity satisfies the utilitarian criterion of delivering the greatest good for the least cost. Indeed, this plot usually introduces the human before the resort to criminality. This can be a loving parent whose child is kidnapped, raped and killed in a gruesome way. The police suspect who’s responsible but do not have enough evidence to justify the expense of a public trial. Our protagonist therefore takes the suspect somewhere quiet and asks pertinent questions with a cattleprod or electric drill. If guilt is established, we accept revenge as a justification for doing away with this pond scum. Should it prove not to be the kidnapper but other offences are admitted, we’re still encouraging our hero in the extermination campaign. The next one he takes will be the actual kidnaper. It will all work out for the best. One of the classic tropes is the apparently timid man or sexy woman who learns martial arts and how to shoot. They then walk the darker streets and back alleys inviting muggers and rapists to strike. This satisfies our general desire to have the streets turned into safer places for ordinary people. Since the police have to wait for the criminals to attack, this more proactive approach is more efficient.
In Urban Renewal, we have a tight group who are unquestioningly loyal to each other. Cross is the brains. As Marlon C Cain was a career criminal as a juvenile and ended up in the ultimate “pen” with Vernon D Lewis aka Ace. During their stay, they met an already massive individual who later becomes known as Rhino. This trio will add Princess, Tracker, Tiger and others. In a way, they become a family of misfits and outlaws whose only interest in life is survival and self-advancement. Their services are for sale, but this is not a simple murder for hire operation. They are far more sophisticated than that. More to the point, for all they would die for each other, they have no code of honour or morality. They do whatever it takes to earn the next buck, and then move on in search of the next. This makes them a very valuable resource to organised crime in their city (for now Chicago). It also means they are very carefully watched. If they become too dangerous to the mob or other criminal groups, the conflict would be short and brutal.
This is the second novel to feature Cross, but there are also short stories offering different views of the group and how it operates. The title gives us the theme. The group literally decide to invest their time (and some of their money) in a street which could be gentrified if the local gangs would decide to leave it alone. The homes are bought at the bottom of the market as the mortgage defaults cascade through the neighborhood. Now all they have to do is clear out the local rats. But at a metaphorical, we also see one of the group deciding he would like to live in one of these houses. This is a major psychological shift. His apartment is fortified and in a poor part of the city. He’s not suddenly transforming into an upwardly mobile social stereotype, but it’s nevertheless a form of renewal. Whereas Cross might otherwise have been less than committed to the role of pest control officer, the group must now work for real.
The other plot threads deal with an attempt to place a mole inside his organisation, a how-to become a player guide, disposing of inconvenient people, playing one mob leader against his ambitious deputy, and street racing 101. Although all these elements are woven into a relatively coherent whole, there’s a slight feel of fix-up as the structure tends to be slightly episodic. The upshot of all this is a book which holds interest. For all their amorality, the group is inadvertently a force for good. A part of Chicago ends up a better neighborhood in which civilians can live without harassment from local gangs, drug pushers and prostitutes. Several senior gangland figures are removed from their posts which disrupts the activities of their organisations. Some low-level thugs are persuaded to move up to better levels and an exploitative grifter gets his just deserts. Because these socially desirable results are not directly intended, we are denied the chance to accept Cross as a vigilante. He will always be too far off the reservation for acceptance. Nevertheless, Urban Renewal is worth reading. It’s not glorifying evil. Andrew Vachss simply catalogues the murders dispassionately and passes on.
For a review of another book by Andrew Vachss, see Shockwave.A copy of this book was sent to me for review.