Obsession with the perps they couldn’t bring to justice eats away at the police detectives in Richard Price’s “The Whites” like a necrotizing fasciitis of the soul.
The title of “The Whites” doesn’t refer to the skin color of the men and women with gold shields – who in this gritty story are white, black and Latino. Rather, it likens the unpunished criminals who haunt them to the mighty white whale in Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” One tormented detective thinks back to the black-and-white movie version he saw in a high school class:
“He had been riveted by the metal-eyed captain, his blazing doggedness, and in the end, when he went down into the sea strapped to the beast that he had lived to kill, it had struck (the detective) as the perfect outcome.”
When Price, the author of “Clockers” and “Lush Life,” began writing this novel, he thought he would write something “slicker, tighter, faster, more the surface of what’s happening, more propelled by the mystery at its core (without)…any social resonance,” he said in an interview. That’s why he chose a pen name. Too late to change it, he realized he had written another book like his well-known literary crime stories.
Detective Sgt. Billy Graves runs Night Watch, which investigates overnight crimes until Manhattan precincts open in the morning. It’s something of a Siberian post. An incident in which he shot a drug-crazed perp and the bullet also struck a 10-year-old boy took him off the fast track. Still, he makes the assignment work around life with his second wife, their two sons and Graves’ father, who is slipping into senility.
On St. Patrick’s night, Graves is called to Penn Station to investigate a homicide. “It looked to Billy as if the guy had been trying to jump the turnstile, bled out mid-vault, then froze like that, dying in midair before dropping like a rock.”
Graves recognizes the victim as Jeffrey Bannion, suspected in a homicide nearly a decade ago. The Bannion case had obsessed John Pavlicek, Graves’ former partner. Back in the 1990s, Graves and Pavlicek were part of a group of young cops in a bad Bronx precinct. All made detective, but all found professional heartache, too:
“As detectives, dispersed to various squads across the boroughs … they 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. ...”
Graves begins to realize that someone is knocking off the Whites of his former running buddies, now scattered to post-police careers but still in touch. And someone is stalking his family in a personal way – including picking up his out-of-touch father and dropping him off on the Harlem streets that the elder Graves once patrolled.
“The Whites” grips a reader as firmly as any pay-cable cop show you can think of – plus it offers the rich texture of Price’s deeply informed writing.
Harry Brandt (aka Richard Price)
Henry Holt, 333 pages