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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Whites

Richard Price is known for his hard-hitting police procedurals and tales of the demimonde, so I'm not sure why he wrote The Whites under the name of Harry Brandt, especially since his name is also on the book. He shouldn't be ashamed of the book, as it's a crackling good meditation on guilt and justice.

The story is told from the point of view of Billy Graves, a detective on the New York City night watch, who handle crimes committed in the wee hours of the morning and managed until the right precinct comes in. He and his staff are called in to a murder in Penn Station, and he realizes that the deceased is a killer that the cops refer to as a "white," short for "white whale": "they all had all met their personal whites, those who had committed criminal obscenities on their watch and then walked away untouched by justice, leaving their obsessed ex-WG hunters heading into retirement with pilfered case files to pore over in their offices and basements at night."

The WG refers to the "Wild Geese," a group of loyal cops, of mixed race and gender, who are beholden to each other like family. But when some of the other cops' whites turn up dead and missing, it makes Billy start to wonder.

This is in addition to an unknown person giving grief to Billy's family, such as bothering his son at school, taking his dementia-addled father for a ride, or leaving garbage on the front stoop. We know who it is, as that man's chapters are alternated between Billy's, we just don't know why he's doing it.

So, if The Whites isn't a whodunit, it's a why'dtheydoit, and the ethics of the story makes for some serious thinking. Should Billy turn in who's been killing the scum that are walking the streets?

Price has always written with the picaresque language of the streets and the squad room. Here's a few examples: "The handcuffed drunk in the backseat had lost three thousand dollars betting on the NCAA Final Four and decided that it was the fault of his wife's face, which he promptly set to rearranging." Or: "He was nothing more than an increasingly violent and out-of-control wreck whose hands shook all the time now from drinking, nothing more than a raging borderline wet-brain, so constantly tired these days that he could barely get in or out of bed."

By my count I've read four of Price's books: Clockers, Freedomland, Lush Life, and now The Whites. I think this one, though written under a mysterious pen-name, is the strongest of the lot.

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