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Two Trains Running - Behind the Book

On writing TWO TRAINS RUNNING

A personal essay by Andrew Vachss

I have always regarded myself more as a journalist than a novelist. Sonny Mehta, my long-time publisher, coined the phrase "investigative novels" to describe my body of work, and I've always been proud of that term. But whereas much of my previous fiction, like the Burke series, was designed to expose the underground of child exploitation on all fronts, its foundational material was generally seen as "predictive." For example, when I wrote about predatory pedophiles modem-trafficking in child pornography, some reviewers thought the books were "horrific fantasy." Why? Because this was in 1987, many years before such truths became public knowledge. I've said many times that, if I could be granted one wish, it would be that the horrors I write about were products of my imagination. "Fiction." TWO TRAINS RUNNING, however, turns the searchlight in another direction … not into the future, but into "history." I take generally known historical facts, add facts which should be common knowledge, and blend them with what I believe are very plausible "explanations" for why events turned out as they did.

My experience during the war in Biafra (now Nigeria) taught me something so many who went before me already have learned: the winners get to write the history books. And that sometimes means the history books get it wrong. For example, Al Capone isn't a character in TWO TRAINS, but his death is a major factor in the unfolding events. Capone died of syphilis in 1947, but how he contracted the disease is … well, it's open to speculation, especially considering how the FBI benefited far more from his slow, humiliating deterioration than it would have from just another mob massacre. Throw in the infamous "Tuskeegee Experiment" that the U.S. government conducted on Southern blacks starting in the 1930's, add my own stint as a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases (before Biafra), and you might find my "speculation" makes you re-think the history books. I hope so.

The character of Walker Dett (a debt, walking) in my book is, on the surface, a man-for-hire, a mercenary who sells homicide like a wholesaler. In 1959, is his strange "mission" really so fanciful when one considers how many FBI "assets" participated in Klan violence during the murderous days of civil rights suppression? New information surfaces every day about anti-civil rights murders from that era which are only now being prosecuted using unsealed FBI files. And whose interests were being served by the organizations supplying the weapons for the violence that was being nurtured throughout America in that era? Are we interested in whether the arms dealers who were supplying juvenile street gangs, black liberation movements, and the neo-Nazi organizations had an agenda beyond money? Don't we want to discuss how the commercial pornography industry was founded out of a desire to ride the "new prohibition" wave? Or how Prohibition itself financed the "crime families" still in existence today? TWO TRAINS RUNNING calls all of this into scrutiny.

This novel is set during the run-up to the 1960 election which brought John F. Kennedy to the White House and which still holds the record for highest percentage voter turnout. In my book (no pun), this was the fulcrum on which American politics has turned ever since. But who really got to decide the outcome? What were the forces at work beneath the surface? It's these kinds of questions which make TWO TRAINS RUNNING a far more ambitious undertaking than any I've ever attempted. Sometimes you get tired of waiting for that "window of opportunity" to open up, and decide it's time to throw a brick through the glass.

Ultimately, TWO TRAINS is my tribute to the one faithful force for progressive social change, the one reliable guardian of democracy: investigative journalism. For any journalist worthy of the name, the quest for truth is the ultimate pilgrimage. So, for me, the success of this book will be measured not only by how many questions it raises, but by how many questioners it creates.

Two Trains Running by Andrew Vachss

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