Review - THE WHITES, Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt
Writing as Harry Brandt, Richard Price has adopted a transparent pseudonym for this brilliant thriller about a rogue NYPD detective dragged back into his dark past by a murder in the present
Richard Price is well known for gritty crime dramas in a number of forms. His early novel Clockers, about crime on the streets of New Jersey brought him favourable attention. He went on to write film scripts (Sea of Love, a crime thriller starring Al Pacino) and award winning episodes of TV’s The Wire. Price claims he created the writing persona Harry Brandt as a way of divorcing himself a little from this output and focusing on a more down-the-line police procedural genre piece. The Whites proves, in a good way, that this has turned out as a bit of a lost cause. The Whites has some genre elements, but it is about much more than life on the beat in New York City.
The first issue to deal with is the name of the book. At first glance, it might be assumed that The Whites is some sort of reference to race relations, always a fertile source of material for American crime novels. But the name actually has a much more literary source. A "white" is the one that got away, a cop’s personal Moby Dick. These are criminals who have committed despicable crimes but managed to dodge the system whether it was through lack of evidence or some technicality. Many of the cops and ex-cops of the book carry their whites around with them, keeping an eye on their quarry and staying in touch with the families of the victims even after they have left the police force. As the plot unfolds, the term “white” starts to take on a broader meaning, referring to any obsession or lifelong pursuit that, much like Captain Ahab, can drive people to dangerous extremes.
Billy Graves heads the Night Watch. His team take the streets of New York between midnight and eight am. When the story opens it is St Patrick's Day, one of the most violent nights of the year. But as the book wears on it is clear that most nights are violent, just some are more violent than others. While there is a plot the swirls around and centres on Billy, the pressure of his job, and the constant crime that he has to deal with never lets up and creates an undercurrent of tension through the book.
On that opening night Billy is called to a murder at Penn Station. He immediately recognises the victim as the “white” of one of his former partners. Billy was part of a group of detectives who called themselves the Wild Geese and ruled the city in the 1990s. He is the last one left in the police force, the others having left to go into other roles including private security, property development and undertaker. Each of them has their own personal white. And when Billy notices that the Penn Station victim is not the only white to turn up dead, he has to dig back into his past and test his relationship with his old partners.
At the same time, another cop, Milton Ramos, has his own mission: avenging the death of his brother many years before. A mission that causes him to target Graves' family in an escalating program of terror. The story spirals around the two men as they are slowly pulled into each other's orbit.
The Whites is, on its surface, the crime procedural that Price was after. Much of it is about cops, doing their business, managing other cops, trying to juggle a private life, while dealing with the unending tide of crime. But it is also more than this. The book explores the impact that this life has on those people: why they became cops, why they continue to be cops, and the ties that bind them together. It is a story that explores the twisted byways of love and loyalty, regret and the price of vengeance. It is Richard Price's Moby Dick, which is probably why, after creating Harry Brandt, he put his name back to it.