cover image Shella


Andrew H. Vachss. Alfred A. Knopf, $20 (225pp) ISBN 978-0-679-42416-1

Drawing on his experiences as a lawyer specializing in child abuse cases, Vachss has gained a reputation in his five previous novels ( Hard Candy ; Sacrifice ) as a portrayer of deviant criminals with warped minds and bizarre modus operandi. The protagonist of his latest raw, scorching story is John, aka Ghost, a coolly efficient hit man and murderer who never uses a gun. Just released from a Florida prison, flinty John scours the nation in search of Shella, a topless dancer and dominatrix who was his partner in crime. When John was arrested three years earlier, Shella inexplicably vanished instead of hanging around to get him a lawyer. John is obsessed with finding the reason for her behavior so he can either punish Shella or forgive her. In Chicago, John meets Wolf, a Native American assassin who makes a deal: John must infiltrate a white-supremacist hate group and kill its leader; in return, Wolf's tribal cohorts will try to locate Shella. Vachss's chilling portrait of the white racist cult, whose members murder blacks, Jews and homosexuals, is the most effective part of a story that otherwise feels contrived. Readers may have trouble identifying with the twisted love affair between a laconic hit man and a dominatrix driven to a gruesome mission of revenge. (Apr.)