Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Whites by Harry Brandt

Richard Price is something of a wonder. Word on the avenue is that he wrote this under the pseudonym Harry Brandt hoping a popular pot-boiler would bring in some fast cash while he could keep his street cred as a literatteur. It is kind of laughable when you see what he did with the form. His characters have motivations so deep we can cut loose our therapists, the plotting is so intense and detailed I needed a name map, and his language is so fly I had to learn on the job. Nah, this is like no pot-boiler that I can think of. Brandt overshot the mark by a mile, coming in way high on this one.

At a time in our nation’s history when we are steeped in talk of race, cops and black men, and justifiable shootings, a book called The Whites grabs our attention. But the treatment of race in this novel is the healthiest, most irrelevant subject in this novel. In this book race is a descriptor, not a definition.

The Whites instead refers to the white whales, suspects who got away: “those who had committed criminal obscenities…and then walked away untouched by justice…” Every cop has his or her own personal “white,” and Price is democratic in this, too. One of the five hard-core detectives who started as cops in one of the worst precincts in the East Bronx and were then promoted and dispersed as detectives across the boroughs is a woman. As a group, they are called the “Wild Geese.”

All of the WG were obsessed with their Whites,
“heading into retirement with pilfered case files to pore over in their office 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 in the morning of the murder, to the cousin upstate who had never been properly interviewed about the 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—and always, always, calling on the spouses, children, and parents of the murdered: on the anniversary of the crime on the victims’ 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.”
Only Billy Graves, the youngest of the WG, is still on the job. “His flatline personality and bland solidness” is the rock in his marriage to a damaged ER nurse, and to the group of WG who find they fear his uncompromising relationship to the truth and duty.

There was also another detective, not a WG, who had his own personal White. This novel is about finding Whites and bringing them to justice, legally or not. Price makes us see the struggles, hear the backstory, recall the misery, and gives each man and woman a reason for murder.

This novel recalls “mean streets” narratives of the past, either in film or fiction, either in Europe or the United States. The idea of Whites is not new. But Price makes it as American as Melville, as classic as Moby Dick. The laconic questioning, the deadness behind the eyes, the sense of justice, the quality of the brutality, the mean streets—these are all ours.


I was looking for something to listen to while working and this one was available. I'd already liked the book, so was very pleased to find the audio terrific. Read by Ari Fliakos and produced by Macmillan Audio, this audiobook is a perfect listen. All the confusing bits come clear, and the desperation of the characters comes through loud and clear.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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