By Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt
333 pages, $28
By Janice Okun
NEWS BOOK REVIWER
The cast is enormous; the villains are many; the writing is intense. And so is the recent publicity. Some reviewers are even calling “The Whites” the crime novel of the year.
Well – let me put it this way: it certainly has shot at it. The book has a gritty Manhattan background; it features true-to-life characters, great dialogue and a strong moral sense, as well.
It focuses on cops, their families, their enemies but, to the more casual reader, the title may be confusing. “The Whites” refers back to the white whale that is Captain Ahab’s obsession in “Moby Dick.” In novelist and screenwriter Richard Price’s (or pseudonym Harry Brandt’s) book a “White” is a guy who has committed a terrible crime and gotten away with it. And the memory of that escape eats at the cops who were involved to the end.
When it comes to “The Whites,” obsession is the name of the game.
We meet the primary characters almost immediately; they are a group of policemen who all have “Whites” in their lives. They call themselves the Wild Geese because they were assigned to one of the worst precincts of the East Bronx when they were young. And they were committed to the job.
“Preternaturally protective, sometimes showing up at the trouble spots two steps ahead of the actors … they were decathletes, chasing their prey through backyards and apartments, across roof tops, up and down fire escapes and into bodies of water … the Wild Geese in the eyes of all the people they protected and occasionally avenged, walked the streets like gods.”
Most of the Wild Geese are retired now and a little world-weary but they still cannot forget. Jimmy Whelan remembers the ringleader of a white street gang who “in the aftermath of 9/11 chased a Pakistani kid into an oncoming car.”
Redman Brown is haunted by “the murderer of a college-bound high school baller who had made (the murderer) look bad in a playground pickup game.”
Yasmeen Assaf-Doyle forever thinks about a 28-year-old small-time felon who had stabbed to death a reedy myopic ninth-grader because the kid talked to his 14-year old girlfriend at their school.
And then there is Billy Graves, the central character in the novel. His “White” is Curtis Taft, who killed three young females in one evening. “as far as Billy is concerned, the most black-hearted of all the Whites.”
But suddenly all the Whites are getting killed.
Graves is a flawed man but basically a good one. Still, he’s had a checkered career. Many years ago, he shot a young boy in error. The boy lived but media coverage was extensive and an embarrassed police department strove to hide him from the public eye. After years of toiling in obscurity, he’s now in command of the NYPD Night watch, in command of a handful of detectives responsible for covering all the felonies committed in Manhattan between 1 and 8 p.m.
His detectives are a feckless bunch but they’re not Graves’ only problem. He lives with his seriously moody wife Carmen, their two young sons and his father, a retired chief of patrol, now sinking not-so-slowly into dementia. And Billy is gradually becoming aware that the family is being stalked by another detective, Milton Ramos, a nasty but still pathetic sad sack who is obsessed with killing Carmen because he thinks she has done his own family very wrong.
Billy continues to do his job. Sometimes that’s funny but usually it is not – there’s a magnificent scene when he encounters a former basketball star and gently gets him to admit he threw his baby daughter on the floor.
Through it all, Billy worries about his Wild Geese friends and the deaths of their suspicious “Whites.” And what he should do about it.
The book comes to an ambivalent conclusion.
Janice Okun is the former News Food Editor and a lifelong devotee of crime fiction.