Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Whites

Some years ago, when I was doing research for a whodunit that I never marketed, I interviewed two homicide detectives about their work.

One of them mentioned an old man who had been found dead, naked, on a hillside about five miles from where I lived.  The case had not been solved officially.

"But I know who did it.  I know exactly what happened," said the cop.

I knew enough not to ask who did it or how.  The detective would not have told me.  He still was working the case.  For all I know, he still is.


This theme -- cops obsessed with murders unsolved and, particularly, killers unpunished -- is the central premise of The Whites, a new novel written by Richard Price and published under the pseudonym Harry Brandt.  Price burst onto the literary scene more than 20 years ago with Clockers, another story of police obsessions.  Since then he has published other books and also written for the acclaimed television series, The Wire.

I enjoy police procedurals and have read some of the work of Ian Rankin, whose detective, John Rebus, works out of Edinburgh, Scotland, and also several of the Harry Bosch stories by Michael Connelly, whose books are set in Los Angeles.

The Whites, however, does not strike me as the first in a series of police procedurals. Its haunting mood, which absorbs the reader from first page to last, must have lived with the author for the many years he spent writing it.  The Whites is a one-off, a piece of genuine literature about its place and time and the way involvement with criminals affects the lives of police officers who deal with them.


Billy Graves, the book's lead character, runs the midnight crime investigation squad in New York City.   He is a second-generation cop with a troubled wife, two sons and a demented father who lives with the family.  His closest professional connections are four friends who worked with him on anti-crime assignments in the late 1990s.  They called themselves the White Geese and were very successful.  The other four have since left the force, all scarred by unresolved investigations of murderers who destroyed lives and families and never were brought to justice.  These killers are the "Whites" -- the Moby Dicks of their respective Ahab cops -- of the title.

As Price puts it, "No one asked for these criminals to set up houses in their lives, no one asked for these murderers to constantly and arbitrarily lay siege to their psyches like bouts of malaria, no one asked to feel so helplessly in the grip of this nonstop black study that they had no choice but to pursue and pursue."

Early in the book, one of the Whites is stabbed in the middle of the night in New York's Penn Station; he runs away, leaving a long bloody trail before he collapses and dies.  Billy and his crew begin the investigation.

Events proceed from there.


I finished reading The Whites a week ago.  It still is walking around with me.  A great piece of work.

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