Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wake That Dog: Thoughts on "The Whites" by Richard Price

Billy Graves is a middle-aged New York police detective heading the NYPD Night Watch at Manhattan’s 15th Precinct. One early post-St. Patrick’s Day morning, while mopping up the ruins of revelry, he and his crew are called to the scene of a murder in Penn Station. The victim is a lowlife named Jeffrey Bannion.

Bannion: Familiar name. Bannion is what is known among Billy’s old squad of fellow detectives—now mostly retired—as a “White”: a murderer who walked free from his crime and forever escaped justice. Right, kind of like Melville’s White Whale, each one an obsession that gnaws at a good cop’s soul.

Billy greets Bannion’s death as cheery news, at first. But then another of these Whites in another murder investigated by another of Billy’s former partners turns up dead. Billy starts detecting a pattern.

To further deepen Billy’s unease, a monster hovers out of sight, tipping over the table of his home life with a chain of mysterious threats and acts of vandalism, particularly impacting his adored wife, Carmen, and his aging father.

Billy Graves is a compulsive investigator and descendant of such stalwarts as Maigret, Colombo, and Smiley. But while he seeks justice, his closest, oldest pals see him as a snoop and busybody as he turns over rock after rock, pokes his nose into the corner of all their lives, including his, past and present. The costs of truth-seeking run high. The detective’s eternal quest for truth tears his own world apart. This good, but rather infuriating, soul can’t stop asking question; can’t let the dogs sleep.

I strongly recommend this procedural thriller by the writer formerly known as Richard Price (a writer for The Wire, whose other distinguished work, such as Clockers, I’ve not read.) While it’s rather obvious in its allusions (especially to Moby Dick) and its plot isn’t especially clever, Brandt has a clear noirish eye for the insular world of New York cops and the neighborhoods they work.

Like good reporting, the writing is never overly ornamental. Even better, Brandt’s perfect pitch ear for dialogue easily swept away my schematic objections. The novel is mostly a series of sharp, dramatic interrogations, a series of punch and jabs that hint at and sometimes reveal the lights and darks of the characters souls. Open it up and enter.

One final word though about famous writers using pseudonyms right alongside their real names (which I’ve joked about in the past). It’s become commonplace, but once upon a long time ago, pseudonymous writers (like Richard Bachman) would keep their real names (Stephen King) a SSSHHHH! BIG BIG SECRET for as long as possible, for a variety of reasons. They wanted to tackle other styles and subjects and so not confuse their readers or keep the Pulitzer Committee from sniffing out the hardcore porn they wrote to pay the butcher and thereby rescinding that award they’d otherwise earned. (Yes, it’s a gosh darn good thing I left Hot Pants Librarian in the drawer where it belonged.)

Well, them days are over. Thanks to the damned Internet, secrets—even righteous ones—are impossible to keep nowadays. Transparency is all, as J.K. Rowling found out to her sorrow when she attempted a sex change with her Robert Galbraith novels. No matter how hard she tries, her name will always obscure the pseudonym. The “Richard Price Writing as Harry Brandt” seems a dry crumbling fig leaf, so why bother? I get the impression of nervous marketers projecting their own confusion on an already overwhelmed reading public. Let Richard Price be Richard Price. The rest of us can sort it out.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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