An anti-hero, Burke is a career criminal, an orphan raised by the State who was abused throughout his childhood in state institutions and foster homes. Vachss has described Burke as "the prototypical abused child: hypervigilant, distrustful" yet fiercely loyal to his "family of choice". Burke lives in New York City, always on the edges of society. He makes his money as an off-the-books investigator, finding runaways, locating criminals for bounty, and running other assorted scams aimed at fleecing child abusers, pedophiles and other "freaks".
An attorney who represents the interests of abused children, Vachss has described the Burke series as a means to raise money for his legal business and also as a way to publicize the ugly reality of the effects of child abuse on individuals and society:
Burke is a mercenary, a man-for-hire, a career criminal (and two-time felony loser). The prototypical abused child: hyper-vigilant, distrustful, and, in Burke's case, intensely bonded to his "family of choice," a collection of outlaws who had nothing in common but their membership in that vast tribe I called the "Children of the Secret." Burke became the antithesis of the "White Knight" so beloved of detective fiction.
I intended the book as a Trojan horse. A crime novel that pulls the reader into the story at the same time it delivers a steady diet of hardcore reality... Even the name "Burke" is part of that. The infamously homicidal partnership of Burke and Hare began as a graverobbing enterprise. In the early part of the nineteenth century, the duo supplied the local medical school with fresh cadavers. When they finally emptied the graveyard, they began to create their own "product," by opening a hotel. Very few guests checked out. Because they could not present a corpse with fresh wounds to the medical school, Burke became so adept at killing without leaving marks that, to this day, the phrase "to Burke" means just that.
— Andrew Vachss, Contemporary Authors, 2003
I wanted to show people what hell looked like, and I didn't think an angel would be the right guide. You know, the standard protagonist in detective fiction is sort of better than everything — kind of looks at it, comments on it, but is detached from it. I wanted no membrane between the reader and the material. I wanted to make [Burke] as transparent as possible, so I had to make him part of it, instead of somebody simply investigating it.
— Andrew Vachss, The Early Show with Bryant Gumbel, CBS
- Flood (1985)
- Strega (1987)
- Blue Belle (1988)
- Hard Candy (1989)
- Blossom (1990)
- Sacrifice (1991)
- Down in the Zero (1994)
- Footsteps of the Hawk (1995)
- False Allegations (1996)
- Safe House (1998)
- Choice of Evil (1999)
- Dead and Gone (2000)
- Pain Management (2001)
- Only Child (2002)
- Down Here (2004)
- Mask Market (2006)
- Terminal (2007)
- Another Life (2008) The final novel in the Burke series
- ""Andrew Vachss: A Man Who Will Die Trying", by Paula Guran, ''Horror Online,'' May 1999". Darkecho.com. Retrieved 2012-02-02.