Right from the start, Andrew Vachss’ Mask Market grabs the reader roughly by the collar and briskly hustles him into an imaginary underworld of New York City. At least we tell ourselves it’s not real, hoping it only exists in noir B-movies and pulp novels because acknowledging what may be the truth and doing nothing about it makes us complicit in its grim existence. The inhabitants are societal outsiders and misfits, who all look more familiar than they should. It’s a gritty, hard-boiled world, perilous to navigate because the only code the people live by is their own. No one wants to visit. Yet they still do when the law of the land differs from their desires or through the safety of the written word.
Mask Market is the Vachss’ 16th book starring Burke, “a two-time felony loser” and abuse survivor who works this other side of the city for those that need to rent his code of ethics, allowing themselves the illusion of not soiling themselves. The novel opens with Burke having recently recovered from being shot in the face and pretending to be his brother. He meets a man, like most, who needs to find a woman. Sounds like a simple enough job, but when the customer goes to his car to get Burke’s deposit, he is gunned down in the street. Burke witnesses this, and immediately becomes concerned. Was this meeting a set-up? Will the gunmen be looking for him as well? The mystery strikes closer to home than Burke ever anticipated when the missing woman turns out to be someone he rescued from a pimp 20 years ago.
This was my first entry into the Burke series and it was extremely easy to slide right in and not feel overwhelmed. Vachss' character was slowly revealed in a manner that fit the pacing of the story. Little bits of who he is and how he got there were sprinkled in along the way without becoming obvious information dumps that ground the book down, which might have been impossible considering the brisk speed of the plot. He seems like a simple hood on the surface, but has lived a complex and compelling life.
The ultimate pleasure of Mask Market comes from discovering a great author. Vachss has a marvelous way with words that transcend the book and make you want to go back and appreciate them. My favorite line was Burke describing his friend. “Michelle made her entrance in a lipstick-red jacket with shoes to match. She glistened like a cardinal in a snow-covered tree, defying winter to dull her beauty.” Simple, yet powerful. I was hooked from the start and can’t wait to begin another Burke story.