No one has portrayed evil—true evil—more powerfully than Andrew Vachss has in his writing. This carries even more of an impact when one understands that the whole purpose of his "fiction" has been to hold a mirror up to the factual evil he has encountered in his life's work (as a lawyer representing children and youth exclusively) combating predators who prey upon the young and vulnerable.
"Family of choice"—as opposed to birth families, who, with tragic frequency, are often at the core of the most brutal acts against their own—is another recurring theme in Vachss's writing.
This is once again true of Cross and the "family" of outcast mercenaries who are at the center of this novel. They are held together by a fierce sense of loyalty to one another and an equally strong lack of loyalty or sense of belonging to anything or anyone else. Their leader is Cross. He is a man for hire; a killer, an eliminator. And his team will help him finish any job he takes on—no matter what.
Many readers will already be familiar with Cross and crew from the series of short stories appearing in past Vachss collections, Born Bad (1994) and Everybody Pays (1999). A seven-issue series of illustrated Cross stories, titled simply Cross, also came out in 1995 from Dark Horse Comics.
In BLACKJACK, the first novel-length Cross, the ultimate mercenary is enlisted by a mysterious group calling themselves Unit 3, admitting only to being part of a "multi-national" organizational that has been tracking a long string of gruesome international killings where the bodies have all been found with their heads and spines removed. They want to hire Cross to hunt down one of these specialized killers—only in this case strictly to capture "the specimen" alive. Cross believes he has spotted a pattern to the series of killings and agrees to take the job but only with some special provisos of his own, one of them being an authorized-at-the-highest-level "Get Out of Jail Free" card for future use by him and each of his men.
The plot is complex and wonderfully twisty, the action intense, the cast of characters large yet distinctly drawn and memorable. All of it presented in Vachss's stripped-down prose, crisp dialogue, and quick-cut sequences that propel the reader along and practically commands you to keep turning the pages.
There is a paranormal element to this tale that builds steadily throughout and finally erupts in the climactic scene at a maximum security prison. Without giving too much away, let me say only that the "specialized killer" turns out to be what might best be described as an almost-supernatural purging force of accumulated rage, bent on removing a specific segment—the worst and most evil—from our species.
Perhaps Cross himself sums it up best when, after surviving the bloody prison encounter, he states: "But if a hard rain's coming—if the filth is being washed out of our race—then, whoever they are, this is one job I want them to pull off."
I predict readers will be echoing similar words, to the extent they'll be glad this is one more job Vachss has pulled off.
Another exciting, provocative read from one of the most powerful writers of our time.