When Motivated Mercenaries Meet Mass Murder

Blackjack by Andrew Vachss.

Cross is a mercenary. He works for the money. If you pay him he’ll get the job done. But if the other side decides to pay him more he’ll get that job done too. Thus his name, Cross. He rolls with a squad of misfits and extremists who he’s collected over the years. He uses technology, firepower, planning, and skill to navigate his gigs.

Killers are dying. Not just your average killer, but mass murderers, the violent and nasty kind who get away with it or who revel in it. When they are found, they are missing spines or femurs, hard and internal portions of their anatomy. No one seems to know who might be doing it or how it’s done, but there are people looking for the one’s responsible for it.

One team, Unit 3, tracks and hires Cross to deliver one of the killers alive. It’s a challenge that leads him to a supermax prison where he must use his skills and methods to manipulate the racially charged atmosphere and the high security climate to capture the killer and allow Unit 3 to confront it.

This is the first Cross novel by Vachss, though he’s written several short stories with the characters (which I haven’t read). It’s not my first Vachss, novel, however. Early in law school I discovered Burke, the character for which Vachss is perhaps most well known, and read all of the novels in that series, yes, all eighteen of them, and I can easily spot the genetic forebears of Burke in Cross.

Like Burke, Cross has issues with child sexual predators and animal abusers. He’s a loner, an outcast, who has assembled a “family of choice” in his team and those he surround himself with, and he has developed a reputation in the underworld of Chicago that makes him one of the last people on earth one might want to mess with. Unlike Burke, Cross seems well adjusted. Cross’s motivation remains unclear in Blackjack, where Burke was from the get go a crusader on behalf of children. Cross’s team are adults, and with the exception of Princess, seem less scarred than Burke’s supporting cast.

Cross remains, like Burke, a heist story. It tells the tale of a team who know what they’re doing in the underworld, who uncover a job, and use those skills to complete the job. They have few morals that readers might recognize from their own lives, but manage a code of honor. In this novel, Vachss avoids much of the stylized language of the Burke series, opting for a relatively straightforward prose that reads well–though the jumping around abruptly can be a bit off-putting.

At the end of the epilogue–a story in and of itself–Vachss hints at something more overarching for the character. I don’t know whether that something will prove to be a continuing theme and developed, or whether it will be more of a running gag. I look forward to reading the next two novels–and hopefully more–to come.

I picked up Blackjack for a couple of reasons. First, it was the only Vachss title available through my digital library access. Second, Vachss had established some serious street cred in the crime fiction world with his Burke series and I thought I would find similar fare here. Cross has more military routes than hardboiled, and seems less crime inclined than adventure based. That said, I did enjoy it, and I’ll probably read further books in the series if run across them.

I’d recommend Blackjack for Vachss fans, so long as they go in not expecting Burke, and for those looking to find a cross between Dashielle Hammet and Tom Clancy. Three and a half stars.

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