A Bomb Built in Hell and Andrew Vachss

by The Acolyte/Blaise Bienvenue

A Bomb Built In Hell is a nasty, angry, cold-blooded novel about a contract killer who turns on his environment instead of remaining in its shadows. Its protagonist, Wesley, is a state-raised gang member with no known blood ties who opts to join the army at the age of 17 in lieu of his first stint in prison as an adult. It is “at least the seventh time” he has been in front of a judge. He is sent to Korea (it is 1952), where he learns how to kill and is awarded a medal, but is dishonorably discharged for maiming  a marine in a bar fight he doesn’t start. He almost immediately winds up in prison, where he is taken under the wing of a mobster named Carmine. Carmine sees something in Wesley he can use. Wesley is desperate for someone to look up to. Neither man’s role in the relationship is so simple; as these men gravitate toward what they need, there is also a deeper need pushing them together. Carmine’s is for something long since separated from him by the walls, and Wesley’s is for something he has probably never had.

For both men, it is family.

By the time Wesley is released, years have gone by. He has killed several men. Carmine is dead. Wesley seeks out connections left to him by his mentor, which sets him on his career outside the walls as a contract killer. He is joined by an older man named Pet and a younger one called the Kid; the latter looks up to both Wesley and Pet. The three of them form a unit. In addition to being practical, this unit is a family. The family members set out to enact Carmine’s revenge on his former associates and their own revenge on society as a whole. Along the way, they blow up a methadone clinic, assassinate a dictator, and wreak considerable mayhem.

Though written in 1973, A Bomb Built In Hell was not published until almost three decades later, first in serial format on Amazon in 2000, then in hard copy in 2012. In the time between its initial mass rejection–publishers dismissed it as well-written but topically unpublishable–and eventual publication, its author, Andrew Vachss, published dozens of novels, including most of the hard-boiled Burke series, which incorporated Wesley (though in a slightly altered timeline) as a supporting character. None of the anger that drove A Bomb Built In Hell appears to have subsided in the ensuing years. Vachss’s later novels were designed to address perceived flaws in that first novel’s makeup as they pertained to its ability to acquire a readership; they have redeemable protagonists, more colorful supporting casts, and points of entry into the story for “citizens,” which is the term used by Vachss’s recurring narrator for people who have never been to prison. Despite this, the outsider’s viewpoint is retained, as is the recurring message that our society is trapped in a vicious cycle of alienation and marginalization that has created a de facto criminal caste. “Citizens” are usually outnumbered in Vachss’s novels, but they do exist. In A Bomb Built In Hell, the world of the characters contains none of these people; all citizens do in A Bomb Built In Hell is pass sentence on the protagonist, represent him poorly as public defenders, or die by his hand.

Vachss’s later stand-alone novel, Shella, is narrated in the first person by a contract killer called Ghost who, despite his disconnect, beguiles the reader with a childlike innocence (notably, Shella was published in 1993, a year before the release of Luc Besson’s film Leon: The Professional). A Bomb Built in Hell is narrated in the third person and its protagonist, Wesley, is a contract killer who does not beguile, though the trajectory of his corruption is portrayed quite convincingly. Like Ghost in Shella, he seems completely unfazed by the act of killing. Unlike Ghost, Wesley’s moral disconnect is communicated to the reader over the course of an extremely high number of killings, many involving innocent bystanders; Ghost’s is communicated via one well-placed one (though the body count of Shella is higher than one). This indicates a writer who has honed his craft over many years. This doesn’t mean we can’t root for Wesley when he is up against someone even more reprehensible, or that we can’t be outraged by the system that creates him, or that we can’t take vicarious satisfaction in watching what happens to people who fuck with him. A Bomb Built In Hell is, for the most part, an invigorating read. It drags in spots, but that is relative; any Vachss novel reads fast and furious as anything by Elmore Leonard, Michael Crichton, or James Cain. A Bomb Built In Hell is just a tiny bit slower.

Andrew Vachss  has been director of a juvenile prison, a relief worker in Biafra (now called Nigeria) during a period of tribal warfare, a government investigator into STDs, a lawyer exclusively representing children, and an advocate for children’s rights. As such, he has been exposed to atrocities, outrages, and facets of human nature that have enabled him to write novels like A Bomb Built In Hell, Shella, and the Burke series with more than enough detail to bring them to life. The convicts in A Bomb Built In Hell, for example, do not want to be paroled, because they do not want to have to answer to anybody when they get out; they know how to fudge a parole hearing. They know what is behind the methadone maintenance program and they don’t want it in their neighborhood, so they blow it up. Most of the characters in Vachss’s novels either don’t know their biological families or have been abused by them, which causes them to form what Vachss calls “families of choice.” As referenced above, this has been a theme in Vachss’s fiction from the very beginning. For forty years, he has been writing novels that tell us what he knows and what he thinks. A Bomb Built In Hell is no exception. It’s just a little darker and a little colder. It has a much higher body count. Frankly, for me, these could be selling points. If you want to read Vachss’s first dramatization of where he thinks our criminals come from, why they form gangs and “clicks” and congregate, why “undesirables” seek out each other’s company, that is exactly what this book is. If you like Vachss’s other novels, if you like amoral crime fiction, if you liked Charles Bronson before he started playing good guys, if you’ve got a strong stomach and a mad-on for the justice system and a couple days to kill, A Bomb Built In Hell delivers, and then some. The ending, though no longer as preposterous as it was thought to be by prospective publishers in 1973, is shocking as ever. There is very little out there that is this cold and hard. Other novels about hit men do not come close. I highly recommend A Bomb Built In Hell,  Shella, the Burke series, and all Vachss’s fiction. His body of work takes crime fiction to a new level, one as pure as it is gritty and dirty. The purity comes from truth. A Bomb Built In Hell is no macho fantasy. It is hard, painful truth, and it is well worth your time.

– The Acolyte