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Andrew Vachss is the author of the Burke novels. A small-time criminal raised by the state, Burke started off as a Con Man and unlicensed Private Detective, and as the series continues he graduates to The Hunter and Vigilante Man. He earns a living scamming 'freaks' (generally child abusers, neo-Nazis and wannabe mercenaries), rescuing runaways, taking the occasional case, and committing the occasional act of robbery and blackmail.

Burke is an orphan, but has True Companions who he considers to be his real family, consisting of Max the Silent, The Mole, The Prof and Michelle. Others join as the series continues.

In addition, a series of short stories and novellas center around Cross and his crew, a group of professional mercenaries for hire. The stories tend to be more straight action, centering around slightly less reprehensible human beings like drug dealers.

As a lawyer specialising in child abuse cases, Vachss created Burke to express the frustration he felt over society's abandonment and abuse of those for whom it is responsible. He has gone on to write other fiction inspired by this subject, ranging from graphic novels to plays, including tales written in the Batman and Predator universes.

His wife Alice Vachss is a former sex crimes prosecutor and author of a non-fiction book that details her experiences.


These novels provide examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: And then some. Burke mentions more than once that when he rescues runaways, he first takes them to a psychologist to ensure they didn't run away from home for good reason.
  • A World Half Full: Criminals lurk everywhere, the system is at best apathetic and at worst actively malicious and Burke can't save everyone or stamp out all crime. However, every scumbag he does get to put down means a few more innocents get to avoid being victims.
  • Acrofatic: Max spars with one briefly, and Gigi is very much an example, being 450 pounds and ninja-quick. Burke may qualify, having the bulk and speed but lacking a Lightning Bruiser's power.
  • Action Girl: Flood
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Burke falls in love with Flood, but she returns to Japan to continue her martial arts studies. He later falls for prosecuting attorney Wolfe (an obvious avatar for Alice Vachss) but as he's an ex-con, there's no chance.
  • Asshole Victim: Melissa Turnbridge from Terminal.
    • A favorite target of Burke's side scams as well.
  • Badass Crew: The True Companions.
  • Badass Driver: Belle and Blossom, former getaway drivers (not from the same book). Max the Silent Drives Like Crazy, as he assumes that people will move aside for him on the road like they do on the sidewalk.
    • Also the main character in the standalone novel "The Getaway Driver".
  • Badass Grandpa: Burke sees one of these in action in Strega.
    • Burke himself ages into it; even he doesn't know his actual age but as the series progresses, he comments on getting older and accommodating it.
  • Badass Israeli: Burke sometimes asks for and receives help from Israeli spooks working in the US.
  • Berserk Button: Mole's dislike of Nazis is so intense, his first reaction is generally to ask Burke when he can blow them up. Burke himself once lost it so bad he killed an entire building full of people. Granted, each one was a Complete Monster, but even Burke was worried about losing it.
  • Best Served Cold: The real villain of Dead and Gone is an old enemy who wants Burke dead for what had been done to him.
  • Big Applesauce. Of the City Noir kind.
  • Black and Gray Morality: Burke and co. are mostly ex-convicts who fight even worse villains.
  • Blindfolded Trip
  • Bulletproof Vest: Burke makes a habit of wearing Kevlar.
  • But Not Too Black: One book mentions the "paper bag trick".
  • Butt Monkey: The closest thing this series comes to comic relief is wannabe mercenaries and survivalists, especially the White Power types. Burke scams them as an income flow by selling them fake knives and mercenary opportunities that will strand them in a foreign country, or speeches by Eli Weisenthal as actual recordings of Hitler's speeches. Similarly, none of his protagonists have any problems setting them up as patsies, and if they get upset and try to attack the protagonist, expect a Curb Stomp Battle that the survivalist will be lucky to get a quick and somewhat undignified death from.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Various people, including Burke himself, self-identify as "thieves". Exactly how evil each one is differs.
  • Charles Atlas Superpower: Claw from Terminal trained to the point where he can crush steel. The first book features Max bending a pair of brass knuckles in half. Ghost from the standalone book "Shella" has trained himself to the point where he can apply exact amounts of pressure to small points and can kill a man with one strike.
  • Children Are Innocent: Brutally subverted in Dead and Gone when the child he's supposed to be retrieving turns out to be one of the ambushers. Also brutally subverted in Sacrifice, where a kid refers to himself as "Satan's Child". Even Burke is disturbed.
  • Cold Sniper: Several, including Wesley, Falcon from the Cross series, and El Cannonero. Several short stories also center around them.
  • Combat Pragmatist: If Burke knows he's outmatched in a fair fight, he's not going to fight fair. The final battle with Mortay is a good example.
  • Contract on the Hitman: Many people think killing Burke is easier than paying him. This is a very bad idea.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Burke has one. So does pretty much every other character you meet. Anybody who doesn't is either well outside Burke's world or a Butt Monkey.
  • Death Seeker: At the end of Terminal, Burke says that the prayer he prayed was the first to not ask in some way for death. The meaning is obvious.
    • Burke tends to fall into this a lot, really.
  • Department of Child Disservices: Burke had an unpleasant childhood thanks to them, to say the least.
    • Averted at least in the sense that child advocates tend to be shown as well-meaning, but underfunded and sometimes deliberately knee-capped by higher-ups.
  • Dragon Lady: Mama Wong, Max the Silent's surrogate mother and implied to be involved with organised crime.
  • The Dreaded: Wesley, even after his apparent suicide.
    • Even worse if you read "A Bomb Built In Hell", essentially Wesley's backstory and horrific even by this series' standards.
  • Enfant Terrible: Beryl in Mask Market, who only gets worse in adulthood.
  • Engineered Public Confession: Burke pulls this on the Big Bad of Dead and Gone.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Even neo-Nazis want nothing to do with child sex offenders.
  • Evil Brit: Strega sees Burke having to speak civilly to a self-proclaimed pedophile with a "semi-Brit" accent. This man becomes an occasionally recurring character.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Vachss himself in Real Life.
  • Eye Scream: Several across the series, but the Crowning Moment of Barf has to go to Shella, when Ghost blinds a man with a sharpened car antenna.
  • False Reassurance: A case is recounted of this being pulled on an AIDS-positive Nigerian who is assured of not dying of his illness.
  • Fan Disservice: Whenever there's child sex in the picture.
  • Fille Fatale: Melissa Turnbridge from Terminal is described as one.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Burke owns a hulking Neapolitan mastiff named Pansy.
  • Friend on the Force: Earlier books had McGowan, but he retired after some time.
  • Genki Girl: Pepper.
  • Hand Cannon: Burke favours high-calibre rounds for quick manstopping. Averted when he doesn't want to kill anybody.
  • Handicapped Badass: Wheelchair-confined crack shot Gateman.
  • Hard Gay: Subverted in the Cross series with Princess: ripped, wearing pink from head to toe, thick makeup, straight as an arrow. Played straight with his teammate Rhino, who is essentially Princess' father figure and openly homosexual.
  • Henpecked Husband: Buddha from the Cross series, but what do you expect when your wife is named "So Long?"
  • Hide Your Children: Brutally averted. Wesley commits suicide by blowing up a school full of the children of mobsters.
  • The Hunter: Burke was raised by the state and horribly abused as a child; he has a pathological hatred of child molesters, but he doesn't hunt them full time -- only when he's getting paid or he's been crossed somehow.
  • Improvised Armour: Mentioned in one book, where inmates who suspect they're going to be attacked will stuff lots of newspaper under their clothing to reduce the effectiveness of shivs.
  • Instant Death Radius: Max is generally referred to as having one, and has demonstrated it on a few occasions. Terminal even points out the "stay out of his reach" aspect of the trope.
  • Knife Nut: Michelle is very fast with a straight razor, and Ghost in Shella keeps a sharpened can opener handy. It's even nastier than it sounds.
  • Knowledge Broker: Wolfe goes into the business in later books.
  • The Last DJ: Why Wolfe loses her job.
  • Last Stand: In Terminal the Prof prepares to do this after a sniper badly injures him, but the crew manage to get him out before the enemy arrives.
    • Burke does one early in the series when a drug deal goes bad, and gets packed off to jail; when he gets out, there's a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming waiting for him.
  • Lightning Bruiser: Max is death in close quarters, but also able to shrug off blows that should leave anyone a-hurting.
  • Mad Scientist: The Mole, a fervently anti-Nazi Jew who specializes in bombs, weaponry, breaking and entering, biology and computer hacking, who lives in a series of tunnels he constructed under a junkyard.
  • The Mafiya: In Dead and Gone Burke meets some and has their leader assassinated. In Mask Market this is subverted (!) as the Russian thugs are actually Russian Jews.
  • Master of Disguise: Subverted with Burke: he's simply so bland most people don't notice him. Played straight with Max, who has such excellent muscle control he can change the shape and hollows of his face to, for example, look like an old man.
  • Monster Clown: A child sex offender dresses as one of these in Strega.
  • Multinational Team: Burke's True Companions is... diverse.
  • Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Often averted: if somebody calls themselves by an absurd or bombastic name, they're probably a fraud or the result of ego and hype. Played straight with a martial artist dubbing himself "Mortay", however.
  • N-Word Privileges: Thoroughly averted, with various characters throwing slurs around and no one batting an eyelid about it.
    • Although White Power types often end up dead.
  • Never Found the Body: Wesley, who apparently blew himself up.
    • Word of God states Wesley is dead and will not be coming back. Well, as a living being: his ghost apparently has taken root in Burke's psyche, at least in a few novels. as a symbol of Burke's dark and homicidal side.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: In Terminal, one character describes how gangs putting out hits on suspected rats leads to cons ratting out for real.
  • No One Could Survive That: In Dead and Gone, when the ambush on Burke goes awry the ambushers go for a Boom! Headshot!. It doesn't take, somehow.
  • Not So Different: The Big Bad of Dead and Gone tries to pull this on Burke, but it ultimately doesn't save him.
  • Nothing Personal: One child sex offender tries to offer this to Burke in Strega. It is contrasted with another self-proclaimed pedophile who waxes lyrical about personal bonds with the boys and shows disdain for those who go "commercial".
    • Who turns out to not care a damn bit and is just in it for the money.
  • Nothing Up My Sleeve: Burke hides a length of chain this way in Dead and Gone.
    • In Terminal he does the same with some rebar.
    • And A .357 zip gun in Flood.
      • In the standalone novel Shella, this is a specialty of the main character, Ghost.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: The Prof, who acted as Burke's mentor in prison. He pretends to be a mad homeless street preacher with no legs.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Burke uses this on several marks over the course of the series, usually to good effect.
  • Parental Abandonment: Burke was dumped on the state foster care system by his underage mother (assumed to be a prostitute); an act for which he holds a great deal of bitterness.
  • Police Brutality: Discussed at length in Terminal. See the quotes page.
  • Posthumous Character: Wesley. Also, Melissa Turnbridge from Terminal.
  • Private Detective: Burke, albeit of the unlicensed kind.
  • The Profiler: Burke studied pedophiles and other wackos in prison, initially just to learn how to scam them.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Max the Silent, a mute Mongolian... from Tibet... somehow... martial arts expert.
  • Punch-Punch-Punch Uh-Oh: Terminal recounts Max letting Muay Thai practitioners knee him twice when he clearly could have gotten them first.
  • Revenge: A recurring trope.
  • A Rhyme Every Time: The Prof enjoys talking like this; generally if he's not speaking in rhyme then things have become very, very bleak.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Burke goes on one in the climax of one book, but unlike most, deals with the extremely negative psychological impact.
  • Sawed-Off Shotgun: The Prof favours one.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money: A recurring trope; real money is one of the few things that can get the otherwise-useless police to get their act together, often to the detriment of Burke and co.
  • Serial Killings, Specific Target: Burke mentions this was a favorite tactic of Professional Killer Wesley. He would kill one man, then burn down the building so the police would have a bunch of other possible victims/motives to investigate.
    • We finally see this in action when the Mob decides not to pay Wesley: he starts killing their innocent relatives and making it look like a sexual sadist is on the loose.
  • Series Continuity Error: Max used to be said to be Mongolian; in Terminal he's at first suddenly Tibetan, then Mongolian again later.
    • The first novel Flood states clearly that Max is from Tibet. Whether he's a Mongolian from Tibet isn't mentioned, just that Mama Wong thought it was funny that Burke assumed he was Chinese. Nevertheless, because later books don't make it clear, the confusion is understandable.
      • It is worth noting historically that Tibet was completely conquered by the Mongols in the 13th Century and there was much integration and connection between the two cultures continued for centuries, to the extent that the new Mongol script commissioned by Kublai Khan was based on Tibetan.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Definitely cynical.
  • Snuff Film: Also a recurring trope.
  • Stout Strength: Rhino is described as being enormously fat in the Cross books; he can also crush your skull like a grape.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Recurring but rarely central.
  • This Is Reality: Wolfe tells Burke as such in Mask Market.
    • In Terminal one guy tells Burke that "those movies where they put undercovers in prison, never happen".
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Neo-Nazis, lots of them.
    • On a sliding scale of wackiness: some neo-Nazis are essentially professional criminals: they're racist, but not particularly fervent about their ideology, and usually joined the group due to being in prison. In an early novel, a character explains why he's a member of the Aryan Brotherhood and how it got him through prison. Any who haven't been in prison are likely to be a Butt Monkey, however.
  • Tranquil Fury:

 You know what it takes to sit across the table from a man, listen to him talk, look into his eyes ... and then blow his brains all over the wallpaper?

Nothing.

And the more of that you have, the easier it is.

    • An unusual treatment in that Vachss approaches this as what it is: a sign of serious mental illness, and incredibly dangerous. Wesley never speaks above a whisper or loses his temper in the entire series, and he's a Complete Monster.
  • Transsexual: Hooker with a Heart of Gold Michelle
  • Tunnel King / The Short Guy with Glasses: The Mole
  • Tyke Bomb: In Dead and Gone Burke learns that the child he had been tasked with retrieving was made into a killer by Neo-Nazis.
    • Central premise A Bomb Built in Hell, the unoffical predecessor to the Burke Series.
  • The Vamp: Mafia Princess Strega
  • What a Piece of Junk!: Burke drives the "ultimate New York taxicab". Its Gadgeteer Genius owner committed suicide and left Burke the car in payment of an unpaid debt. Flood and Strega go into detail on its capabilities.
  • Writer on Board: Vachss doesn't shy from showing his dissatisfaction with government and society.
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