In a remarkable career spanning three decades, Richard Price has found renown in separate if inextricably linked genres.
He is known for crafting some of the most compelling crime stories on the contemporary scene, both as a novelist (Clockers, Lush Life) and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (The Color of Money, Night and the City, HBO's The Wire).
His eighth book, The Whites, follows the travails of a New York City detective who becomes obsessed with a decades-old unsolved murder. Price will talk about his work in a chat hosted by former Inquirer reporter George Anastasia at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library.
The Whites has been lauded as one of the best crime books of the year. A film adaptation already is in the works. But Price will tell you straight out, "I'm not a crime writer."
Price, son of a middle-class Jewish couple, grew up in a housing project in the northeast Bronx. Take a closer look at his body of works and you'll see that he uses crime the same way as Dostoyevsky or Dickens - as an entree, an angle, a doorway into a social reality to be analyzed, dissected, appraised.
That's where Price's other rep lies. He is acclaimed among critics for producing some of the finest examples of social realism in American letters. His novels, including Freedomland (1998) and Samaritan (2003), are inspired, rich illuminations of urban America and the forces that allow it to function (or not).
Trouble is, and here things get a bit confusing, complicated, Price, 65, did make a stab at being a (mere) crime writer with The Whites. He even wrote it under a pseudonym, Harry Brandt. But, as he concedes, he failed - and instead produced yet another brilliant piece of literary fiction.
"I intended to write strictly a genre [piece], an urban thriller, and I was going to do it quickly and make it into a page-turner," Price said in a phone interview from his Manhattan home. "But once I started writing, it turned into just another Richard Price book, and by the time I decided I didn't want the pen name, it was too late."
It's droll, that touch of disappointment in Price's voice as he says "just another Richard Price novel," as if that were a damnable offense.
For all that, The Whites is a page-turner and your typical, brilliant Richard Price novel. It's about middle-aged detective Billy Graves, who spent his early career as a member of a high-flying anticrime task force christened the Wild Geese, who played it very close to the line.
"Graves started out as a real hot dog," said Price. The Wild Geese "were very physical, very aggressive, but they had a high arrest record."
The cop's career careens off course when he accidentally shoots a 10-year-old boy dead.
Now in his 40s, he supervises the Manhattan Night Watch, a night shift that goes out to crime scenes only to record pertinent information for investigative detectives on the day shift.
Unlike so many cops in the movies, he lives an angst-free life.
"He is more sedentary today and more interested in coming home to his family," said Price. "To him, being a detective is [just] his job. He doesn't have the profound passion for going after the bad guys."
That changes when a night call brings him to the scene of a murder. He immediately recognizes the victim: a suspect in a child murder that Graves investigated when younger. The case remains open. And it has become Grave's great white whale, the fruitless chase he cannot forget.
Price, who has participated in innumerable ride-alongs with the police and has befriended many cops over the years, said he'd always hear stories about the Whites, those elusive cases that continued to obsess certain detectives.
"Each one would have a case that haunted them," he said. Why a certain case sticks with a given cop is entirely mysterious, idiosyncratic, individual.
What isn't very mysterious is why Price uses crime as a way into the social worlds he explores.
"When I have a big landscape - say, the Lower East Side - and I want to capture the whole, sloppy panorama, I've discovered that if you follow the full police investigation," said Price, "you'll eventually get all these very different social and economic perspectives."
Added Price, "A criminal investigation is like a vacuum cleaner: It sucks everything up."