Since 1974, when he published “The Wanderers” at 24, Richard Price has been writing memorable novels about police and criminals, but I tend not to think of him as a crime writer. Rather, I believe that his talent has lifted him beyond genre and made him simply one of the finest American novelists, period. His ninth novel, “The Whites,” reinforces that view. It’s a masterpiece, to stand with such earlier Price classics as “Clockers” (1992) and “Lush Life” (2008).
“I tend to like crime for a backbone,” Price once said. “An investigation will take you through a landscape.” That’s his strategy in “The Whites.” His initial focus is veteran New York Police Department detective sergeant Billy Graves, who confronts two life-defining challenges, but “The Whites” is also about his wife, father and children and the four cops who are his closest friends. The story expands to include the criminals they confront, the mean streets they patrol and the realities of America in the 21st century. That’s the vast landscape that Price takes us through with stylistic grace and pitiless honesty.
As young cops, Graves and his friends called themselves the Wild Geese. They loved “chasing their prey through backyards and apartments, across rooftops, up and down fire escapes, and into bodies of water.” After they caught the bad guys, instead of giving them a beating, as some cops did, the Wild Geese treated them “like members of a defeated softball team.” They played fast and loose and didn’t always refuse a free drink or snort — or the favors of a friendly streetwalker — but they were smart, dedicated cops who rose quickly in the NYPD. Graves loves police work. He agrees with his father, also a cop, who once offered this toast: “Here’s to God, because the man had to be a natural-born genius to invent this job.”
After two decades, Graves soldiers on. He’s settled down, a family man, directing overnight police coverage from Harlem to Wall Street after his friends all have retired. One has prospered in real estate, one runs a funeral home, one (the only woman, Graves’s former lover, now married to another cop) heads security at a local university, and one is the “super” of an apartment building. They meet often, united not only by friendship but by a specific passion. Each is focused on one criminal who escaped punishment for a vicious murder. Each dreams of bringing that man to justice. They call these criminals the Whites, a reference to each cop’s Ahab-like obsession with bringing down his or her personal white whale. Thus the novel’s title.
But a problem arises when these criminals start turning up dead and Graves becomes convinced that his friends have resorted to vigilante justice. He must decide whether to do his sworn duty and turn them in or remain silent because these people are family. It’s an agonizing decision.
His other challenge is even more urgent. One detective, a loner and a psychopath, believes that Graves’s wife, Carmen, once did him a huge injustice. He hungers for revenge and begins carrying out acts that make Graves realize that he, his father, his wife (a nurse and fascinating character) and their two young sons are being stalked. It’s an excruciating game of cat and mouse, all the more gripping because the reader may find the stalking cop unexpectedly sympathetic. This confused lunatic is one of the more original villains you’ll ever puzzle over, even as he schemes to destroy innocent people.
It’s a compelling plot, yet the real joy of the book lies page by page, line by line, in its brilliant characterizations, rich detail, endless surprises, crackling dialogue, absurdist humor and panoramic portrait of endless crime breaking over the city like a tsunami. The same skills that Price has brought not only to his novels but to screenplays (notably “Sea of Love” and “The Color of Money”) and television work (“The Wire”) make “The Whites” one of the most realistic accounts of American law enforcement — good and bad — you’ll ever encounter.
Finally, why do we have “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt”? Here’s Price’s explanation: “I wrote it under a pseudonym because I intended to write a straight-up urban thriller — which I’ve never done before — and I wanted to have a separate persona for it. However, the book kept expanding and became like any other book I’ve written, so looking back, I wish I hadn’t used a pen name.” I wish he hadn’t, too, but Richard Price by any name is still Richard Price.
Patrick Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
On March 2 at 7 p.m., Richard Price will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt
Henry Holt. 333 pp. $28