Some call him Ghost, others John. He answers to either; neither is his name. He's uneducated, uncaring, unfeeling -- an end product of the abuses garnered in orphanages, juvenile halls, and prisons. Now he himself is the ultimate abuser, a remorseless murderer who kills simply as a way of making a living, even though he doesn't really have anything to live for.
Or at least he didn't until he met Shella.
He first met Shella several years back while she was stripping in a club in Seattle. They both knew, at first glance, they would always be together. But then he took a fall for manslaughter that put him away for three years, and when he got out she was gone.
Now, he needs to get her back. But short of searching every strip joint in the country, he doesn't exactly know how find her. Fortunately, an awful lot of people seem to want to help him . . . if he'll just do them one little favor.
Andrew Vachss' fans are in for a surprise or two with "Shella." First, it's not a Burke book. That is, it doesn't feature Burke or any of the other excellent oddballs found in Mr. Vachss' first six novels.
Second, "Shella" isn't very good. Now this isn't a surprise; Mr. Vachss has produced a couple of less-than-
sterling efforts ("Strega" and "Blue Belle"). The surprise is that what are typically strengths of his are, in "Shella," pretty weak.
One of Mr. Vachss' greatest strengths has been his characters. While they're not always likable, they are usually interesting. In "Shella," they're neither.
If John were himself a murder weapon (which, as the book goes, is what he ultimately is), he'd be the proverbial blunt object. Dull-witted, aimless and with no real personality, John is hardly the type for a strong central character. Yet in "Shella," he's not only the central character, but as the novel is written in the first person, he's also the reader's eyes and ears, meaning all perception is filtered through this rather stupid, dispassionate person. It's like looking at the world through a very dirty window: You can make out some of the stuff, but you know you're missing a lot. All in all, it's not fun.
Still, "Shella" could have been saved had Mr. Vachss created some interesting supporting characters.
But they're nondescript and unmemorable, hardly anything to induce reader involvement.
Another of Mr. Vachss' fortes has been his ability to provide for the reader in an almost nonchalant manner very realistic glimpses into the dark side: murder, prostitution, drugs -- and to then use those glimpses to create a sense of atmosphere, a sense of place. In "Shella," we get our looks into the worlds of murder, prostitution, neo-Nazis, et al., but the insight seems almost contrived, lacking that "hands-on" sense of realism. This failure to convince ultimately means that that all-important sense of place is nonexistent.
A final bright spot in Mr. Vachss' books has been a writing style that, over the years, had become switchblade-sharp, occasionally bordering on the poetic. Alas, here the sharpness is gone, the poetry non-existent.
Certainly, it's no secret that Mr. Vachss' first obsession is his crusade against child abuse, and that his writing helps support a legal practice wherein he accepts as clients only child-abuse victims.
And while it would seem almost sacrilegious to suggest he divert his attentions from such a noble cause, a selfish part of me knows that it's been two years since his last book, "Sacrifice." I'd hate to think that it'll be another two years until the next,
because "Shella" did nothing to fill the void.
Author: Andrew Vachss.
Length, price: 233 pages, $20.