After reading The Whites “by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt” the big question I had was: why the awkward authorial byline? In interviews, Price said he wanted to try his hand at a straight-ahead crime novel, as opposed to his works that make greater sociological statements like Clockers or Lush Life. But The Whites certainly achieves the higher-than-just-police-stuff standard Price has always set for himself.
Take the title. It refers to the cases that detectives call White Whales — à la Moby Dick — the big, bad guilty perps who get away and eat away afterward at the cops’ insides like stomach acid. First of all, that’s a major-league literary reference all by itself. Second, a reader can’t help but noting the skin color of his lead character, Billy Graves, since this is a book about New York City and how white police officers treat their polyglot communities as much as it is a plain-ole detective story.
Here’s how, early in the book, Brandt/Price describes the “Whites” that lurk in the minds of Graves and his friends on the force: “No one asked for these crimes to set up house 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.”
Then too, “white” forces you to think about its opposite. Price’s book is also about the the need for mayors and police commissioners to reduce all homicides to black-and-white, good-versus-evil cases when in they are almost always some shade of gray.
Price has been striving to enhance the popular novel category ever since he crashed the hoodlum dance in 1974 with The Wanderers. And he has often reached a new level of existential criminal dread, especially with the New Jersey noir of Clockers, a book about small time ghetto drug hustlers that is one of the most powerful works of late 20th century urban literary realism. Freedomland came close; so did Lush Life.
If, in The Whites, Price wanted to take a holiday from great description and the rhythms of American speech by writing as Harry Brandt, he failed. It’s a great crime book, sure, but you can turn to almost any page and find that amazing ear for “New Yawk” talk. Here’s Billy meeting a friend who is a former reporter:
“Hey,” Billy said taking the neighboring stool and gesturing for a coffee. “How’s it going.”
“How’s what going,”
“I don’t know, life, the boyfriend.”
“The boyfriend’s asleep she said. “He gets up at three in the morning, has a cocktail or two, works on the magazine, and crawls back into bed at five. I could throw a flash grenade in there now, all it would do is scare the cats.”
Ba-da-dee-bop bam rimshot. Reading Price makes a reviewer want to answer him in his own private code of conversation. How many crime-novel writers are treated to a Paris Review “Art of Fiction” interview? Answer: none, unless you consider James M. Cain and George Simenon hacks. The genre has always been a barely-tolerated supplicant in the church of the high priests of lidderahchoor.
Whether it’s a novel, an episode of The Wire that he worked on, or a screenplay (The Color of Money, say, or Sea of Love) Price dialogue always sounds like Price.
Forget Harry Brandt. He’s going to have to script a book a whole lot more boring than The Whites before he escapes the talent so on display in this book. Maybe that’s why, after it was finished, Price felt the need to claim it as his own. As it is, the dual authorship of The Whites must be driving catalog librarians nuts.