Review: ‘The Whites’ by Harry Brandt

THE WHITES. Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. Holt. 333 pages. $28.
THE WHITES. Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. Holt. 333 pages. $28.

Since 1974, when he published The Wanderers at 24, Richard Price has been writing memorable novels about police and criminals, but I believe that his talent has lifted him beyond genre and made him simply one of the finest American novelists, period. His ninth novel reinforces that view. It’s a masterpiece, to stand with such earlier Price classics as Clockers and Lush Life.

“I tend to like crime for a backbone,” Price once said. “An investigation will take you through a landscape.” That’s his strategy in The Whites. His initial focus is veteran New York Police Department detective sergeant Billy Graves, who confronts two life-defining challenges, but The Whites is also about his wife, father and children and the four cops who are his closest friends. The story expands to include the criminals they confront, the mean streets they patrol and the realities of America in the 21st century. That’s the vast landscape that Price takes us through with stylistic grace and pitiless honesty.

As young cops, Graves and his friends called themselves the Wild Geese. They loved “chasing their prey through backyards and apartments, across rooftops, up and down fire escapes, and into bodies of water.” After they caught the bad guys, instead of giving them a beating, as some cops did, the Wild Geese treated them “like members of a defeated softball team.” They played fast and loose and didn’t always refuse a free drink or snort or the favors of a friendly streetwalker, but they were smart, dedicated cops who rose quickly in the NYPD.

After two decades, Graves has settled down. He’s a family man, directing overnight police coverage from Harlem to Wall Street after his friends all have retired. One has prospered in real estate, one runs a funeral home, one (the only woman, Graves’ former lover, now married to another cop) heads security at a local university, and one is the “super” of an apartment building. Each is focused on one criminal who escaped punishment for a vicious murder. Each dreams of bringing that man to justice. They call these criminals the Whites, a reference to each cop’s Ahab-like obsession with bringing down his or her personal white whale.

But a problem arises when these criminals start turning up dead and Graves becomes convinced that his friends have resorted to vigilante justice.

His other challenge is even more urgent. One detective, a loner and a psychopath, believes that Graves’ wife, Carmen, (nurse and fascinating character) once did him a huge injustice. He hungers for revenge and begins stalking Graves and his family in an excruciating game of cat and mouse, all the more gripping because the stalker is unexpectedly sympathetic.

The plot is compelling, yet the real joy of the book lies in its brilliant characterizations, rich detail, endless surprises, crackling dialogue, absurdist humor and panoramic portrait of endless crime breaking over the city like a tsunami. The same skills that Price has brought not only to his novels but to screenplays (notably Sea of Love and The Color of Money) and television work (The Wire) make The Whites one of the most realistic accounts of American law enforcement — good and bad — you'll ever encounter.

Price wrote The Whites under the pseudonym Harry Brandt because he wanted to write a straightforward urban thriller, but he hasn’t. Still, Richard Price by any name is still Richard Price.

Patrick Anderson reviewed this book for The Washington Post.