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Andrew Vachss
Two Trains Running
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Pantheon Books / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 1-400-04381-6
Publication Date: 06-14-2005
88 Pages; $18.95
Date Reviewed: 06-25-05

Index: Mystery  General Fiction

Writers can create excitement in a variety of ways. The most common fashion is to have a character involved in a lot of physical action, running, jumping, shooting, discovering one fact after another. If the reader sympathizes with the character, cares about what happens to that character, then they'll be propelled by the narrative. But it's possible to capture the reader with words without resorting to continual chase scenes. Andrew Vachss' latest novel, 'Two Trains Running' is a gripping page turner set in a medium-sized mid American town in 1959. Locke City is a focal point for the forces that will shape America for the next 50 years. Vachss creates excitement not by focusing on action, though there's plenty to go around. Instead, Vachss evokes mystery by slowly revealing characters and relationships through dialogue. As readers learn who knows who and why, Vachss ratchets up the tension in a novel that is unique. 'Two Trains Running' is easy to read, occasionally tough to understand and impossible to put down.

Reading like the surveillance log of an obsessive voyeur, 'Two Trains Running' begins as tough men meet under mysterious circumstances. The setting is Locke City, a border town that is an amalgam of every city that straddles state lines. This burg blossomed during World War Two, but when the industry died, the town went down the toilet as well. Only by turning itself into a tourist-safe trap featuring gambling and prostitution has Locke City once again flourished. And the safety of these activities is guaranteed by Royal Beaumont, a crippled gangster who moved in and took the town by force and has since held it safe -- so long as you play by his rules. But Beaumont's rules maximize profit, minimize risk and violence and keep the money flowing freely. It's no wonder that other organizations are looking at Locke City as ripe for the plucking. And it's no wonder that Beaumont has brought in a specialist to protect his investment. Walker Dett is the main focus of this novel, the man who gets the most surveillance time, and he rapidly finds that the prize he's protecting is not what he was expecting.

Vachss' style trumps all here, and it's utterly compelling. This is a novel of all show and no tell, a book that plays out almost entirely in hard-boiled dialogue. Who's who isn’t at first clear and it takes a while to figure out what the relationships are. What Vachss does here, layering on scene after dispassionate scene, is to create a puzzle that only slowly comes into focus, a puzzle that is an outstanding and gripping pleasure to read and put together. This book creates a whirlwind of tension with a minimal amount of action. This is not, contrary to what you'll read elsewhere, a testosterone charged cycle of mayhem. Instead, Vachss is showing us only the surface, and letting the reader assemble the big picture. It’s a virtuoso piece of storytelling, totally exciting, never manipulative.

This is not to say that 'Two Trains Running' is easy reading. Yes, each short section is goes down smoother than a two hundred dollar shot of scotch, but putting together the big picture requires reflection and serious attention. Vachss has a huge cast that he deploys with no exposition and no introspection, and a minimum of third-person omniscient tracking. Some readers may feel there's too much here to understand. Others will feel invigorated and excited.

Vachss certainly has some intriguing and utterly memorable characters, all drawn in shades of gray. Royal Beaumont and his sister Cynthia live together in a manner that slips under the reader's radar. Walker Dett is a blisteringly intense man, and his transformative experience is superlatively shocking. But Vachss shows a more demure, stilted and almost tender side here. Dett and other characters find themselves engagingly, clumsily tongue-tied when confronted with women. Vachss keeps the romance angle sharply shaded and doesn't delve into the explicit.

The fast moving dialogue and the crowd of characters competing for our attention enable Vachss to offer readers ample opportunities to put together a compelling picture of the undercurrents that shape our society. The intersection between the criminal and the legal, the revolutionary and the evolutionary, and the icy promise of delivering the vote are among the forces that sweep these characters along. And whether it's FBI assets riding in Klan death-cars or the lynching of Emmet Till, Vachss has a hold on the facts that seems eerily prescient. By keep the mystery totally on the surface, by showing us nothing more than what is said and what is done in two weeks on a border town, Vachss, presents a picture which readers slowly assemble for themselves by asking the kind of questions that help us understand what is happening here and now. He's not preachy by any means, in fact, he's utterly the opposite. Vachss is a facts-only, action-only kind of guy. Readers can, readers must draw their own conclusions about who is good, who is evil and who is both in 'Two Trains Running'. There's a lot of room for disagreement and argument here. Vachss is not without an agenda, but his agenda is comprised largely of getting the reader to question all agendas --even his.

Some readers will balk at the complexity of Vachss' story. Precisely who some characters are and what parts they play are not clear even at the end of the novel. Every reader will walk away from this novel asking questions, perhaps vaguely annoyed because the answers aren't always apparent. Few writers have the combination of chutzpah and skill to write a novel that will leave his readers champing at the bit. Vachss has done so, and we can only hope a sequel is coming much sooner than is likely. 'Two Trains Running' is one of the few novels that leaves the reader asking questions and expects the reader to provide answers. Vachss has provided an amazing express train to get you to that state of mind. At the border of states, where the laws and lies run free. You can lie to the law. But it's a lot more difficult to lie to yourself.

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