By Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt
Henry Holt. 333 pages. $28
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Reviewed By Paul Davis
Richard Price, author of Clockers and other novels that cover cops, crooks, and city life, offers a new story of a small group of New York City cops who, like Ahab, have personal white whales that obsess them. That's the key to the title: The "Whites" are heinous criminals who get off scot-free, thereby becoming obsessions for the cops involved in the investigations.
Price opens The Whites well, quickly establishing the late-night urban atmosphere and the main character's cop-world point-of-view: "As Billy Graves drove down Second Avenue to work, the crowds worried him: a quarter past one in the morning and there were still far more people piling into bars than leaving them, everyone coming and going having to muscle their way through the swaying clumps of half-hammered smokers standing directly outside the entrances."
Graves later responds to the scene of a murder at Penn Station. He recognizes the victim from his days as a member of the "Wild Geese," a group of young, bold, and aggressive South Bronx street cops in the 1990s.
Eight years earlier, the murdered man had been a suspect in the death of a 12-year-old boy and was the "White" that haunted Graves' old partner, John Pavlicek.
Graves and all the other Wild Geese cops have their own personal Whites. They obsess over ways to bring these escaped criminals to justice. It's the gnaw of unfinished business, promises unfulfilled, justice left undone. The Wild Geese cops head "into retirement with pilfered case files to pore over in their offices and basements at night, still making the odd unsanctioned follow-up call: to the overlooked counterman in the deli where the killer had had a coffee the morning of the murder, to the cousin upstate who had never been properly interviewed about that last phone conversation he had with the victim, to the elderly next-door neighbor who left on a Greyhound to live with her grandchildren down in Virginia two days after the bloodbath on the other side of the shared living room wall."
The obsessed cops find themselves "always, always calling the spouses, children, and parents of the murdered: on the anniversary of the crime, on the victim's birthdays, at Christmas, just to keep in touch, to remind those left behind that they had promised an arrest that bloody night so many years ago and were still on it."
Graves' White is Curtis Taft, the killer of a 28-year-old woman, a 14-year-old girl, and a 4-year-old girl, all in one evening. To Graves, Taft is the worst of the Whites.
Graves' days as a Wild Geese cop end abruptly when a bullet from his service firearm passes through a wild man high on angel dust and lodges in the body of a 10-year-old child. Graves is exonerated, but because of press coverage of the shooting, he is buried in the NYPD bureaucracy through a promotion to detective and an assignment to the basement of the morgue.
Eventually transferred and later promoted to sergeant, Graves is in command of the night watch when the old gang's Whites end up being murdered, one by one.
For me, the most interesting character in the novel is Milton Ramos, a half-Jewish, half-Puerto Rican detective. This complicated, conflicted, and cruel cop is not one of the old Wild Geese, but he, too, is haunted and obsessed - by a family tragedy that occurred when he was a young man. That obsession comes to connect Ramos to Graves' professional and family life.
There are aberrant cases of cops who become crooks and killers in real life, to be sure, but I found the novel's plot, which I won't divulge here, somewhat far-fetched. Still, The Whites is an otherwise realistic, well-written, and insightful novel. The novel also contains an abundance of cop black humor.