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The Whites by Richard Price
Legal thriller

The Whites

by Richard Price

Quick take

One of the finest novels about a policeman and what a policeman's work consists of, in recent memory.

Why I love it

The author of The Whites is billed as "Richard Price, Writing as Harry Brandt," but it still brings all the realism and lyricism of his previous novels. In the same vein as his previous novels The Wanderers, Clockers, Freedomland, his screenplay for The Color of Money, or even his episodes of The Wire, this novel was intended, as Price has said, to be, "slicker, tighter, faster, more on the surface of what’s happening." Price used the pseudonym because he planned to write this book quickly to make money. But he couldn't do it, and after working on the novel for several years, he realized "it's another damn book by me, there's no separation, there's no genre, there's no nothing, except another book."

As if any book by Price could be just another book. The Whites certainly isn't '“ it is slick, tight, fast, but also superbly written, full of social resonance, one of the finest novels about a policeman and what a policeman's work consists of, in recent memory. And its protagonist is a great and complicated creation. Billy Graves, a sergeant in Manhattan's Night Watch, the cadre of detectives who respond to all "felony-weight" crimes from Washington Heights to Wall Street from one to eight a.m., is haunted by his past mistakes, by the unfaded specter of his apprentice days in a crime-ridden New York in the 1990s, and by the daily burden of managing the demons of the night shift. He works all night, and comes home every morning to a wife, Carmen, and two young children whom he barely sees in passing.

Billy Graves spends a lot of time alone, managing (or not) the demons in his head, and we are right there with him. It is a claustrophobic and riveting place to be. On the surface, The Whites is a crime novel; it begins, gaudily, on St. Patrick's Day with the murder of a man who figured in the unsolved death of a 12-year-old boy early in Graves' career. But it is also a relentless psychological portrait of a haunted man who sees too much darkness around him to concentrate on the glimmers of light.

The title is a reference to Melville's Moby-Dick, and to the cases, that become a detectives' "personal Whites" '“ perps who "committed criminal obscenities... and then walked away untouched by justice," and crimes that "arbitrarily lay siege to their psyches like bouts of malaria." The Whites has that effect '“ it lays siege. It is a novel of a policeman's mind at work, but it also about New York today and in a not-too-distant yesterday, with a cast of colorful characters on both sides of the law (the parenthetical, off-hand detail and sustained portraiture are equally vivid); and there is real, looming danger, as past and present converge. The separation of public and private, of good and evil, has never felt more dangerously thin, with Price accelerating the tension, and the pace, as that line and the line between justice and revenge, becomes grittier and almost invisible.

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