I have read one other Richard Price novel, his 1974 debut “The Wanderers” which when I discovered it in 2014 I made my Book of The Year. This tale of a teenage gang in the Bronx in the early 1960’s I described as “unsympathetic, gritty and yet touching”. It was published when Price was 25 and 41 years later came his 9th novel originally written under the pseudonym Harry Brandt, although this edition puts Price’s own name to the forefront.
The title refers to the nickname given by a group of NYPD members past and present to those individuals who literally got away with murder, whose obvious guilt in the execution of terrible crimes becomes an obsession to the detectives – becoming their own personal nemesis. Still serving in the Night Watch is main character Billy Graves who regularly meets up with ex-colleagues “The Wild Geese” where their Whites are often a topic for conversation. When bad things begin to happen to those they obsess over is it karma kicking back or is someone taking the law into their own hands?
Alongside this we have sections devoted to another serving policeman, Milton Ramos, more obnoxious and obsessed with revenge, which is a major theme of the novel. This begins to infiltrate the lives of Billy, his ER nurse wife Carmen, their two children and Billy’s Alzheimer’s stricken father, himself an ex-cop.
This is very much a hard-boiled crime tale but it really works for me as it is so character led. It is hard to initially warm to all the characters, but Price, as he did in his debut over 40 years before, does draw the reader in. These are undoubtedly flawed individuals but you still end up caring.
In the intervening years between “The Wanderers” and this, apart from the 7 other novels, Price has written Hollywood screenplays for movies such as “The Sea Of Love” (1989 starring Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin) and “The Color Of Money”(1986 with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, for which Price was nominated for an Oscar) and also wrote episodes of “The Wire”, rightly regarded as one of the best written crime TV series ever, so you can see the credentials right away. There is no doubting his ability in getting the feel of authenticity in his writing.
The day to day (or night to night) crimes in Billy’s professional life go on in the background in an unrelenting, grinding, life-sapping way which is very effective and shifts the novel in a direction I was not really expecting when I started it, when I felt that it would be this aspect which would take centre stage.
This is impressive writing and I think, that especially here in the UK, this writer is under-valued. Stephen King described it on publication as “the crime novel of the year, grim, gutsy and impossible to put down.” I would find it very hard to disagree.
The Whites was published by Bloomsbury in 2015.