Just as I was getting started on The Whites by Richard Price (writing as Harry Brandt), I saw that the readers in the Tournament of Books group on Goodreads were mostly unimpressed with it, and my interest in it flagged a bit. I’m glad, however, that I decided to go ahead and read it because I ended up liking it quite a bit. I’m not sure I’d have considered it a candidate for the Tournament of Books, but part of the fun of this competition is that they include such a wide range of books, some of which are, like this, just solid examples of a genre that doesn’t always get attention in general literary contests.
The Whites of the title are “white whales,” criminals that got away from Billy Graves and the other “Wild Geese,” a group of young officers in a Bronx anti-crime unit in the late 1990s.
No one asked for these crimes to set up house in their lives; no one asked for these murderers to constantly and arbitrarily lay siege to their psyches like bouts of malaria, no one asked to feel so helplessly in the drip of this nonstop black study that they had no choice but to pursue. But there they all were: Pavlicek forever stalking Jeffrey Bannion; Jimmy Whelan pursuing Brian Tomassi, the ringleader of a white street gang who, in the aftermath of 9/11, had chased a Pakistani kid into an oncoming car; Redman Brown stalking Sweetpea Harris, the murderer of a college-bound high school baller who had made him look bad in a playground pick-up game; Yasmeen Asaaf-Doyle forever tracking Eric Cortez, a twenty-eight-year-0ld small-time felon who had stabbed to death a reedy myopic ninth grader because the kid had talked to Cortez’s fourteen-year-old girlfriend at their school.
Billy Graves is the only one of the Wild Geese who’s still a cop 20 years later, but he’s been relegated to the overnight shift, largely because of an accidental shooting of a kid years ago. The job is a routine for him now, and he’s good enough at it, but he’s no longer a shining star. But when Jeffrey Bannion’s body is found at the end of a trail of blood in Penn Station, he is brought back to the old days. Back then, Billy’s partner, John Pavlicek, was convinced that had Bannion killed his twelve-year-old neighbor, but the crime was pinned on Bannion’s younger brother, whose mental disabilities made him an easy target in prison, where he was murdered after only five days. And Pavlicek never forgot.
Billy’s chapters alternate with short glimpses into the life of another obsessed cop, Milton Ramos. Milton was a detective, “a misguided reward for being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” taking down two perps in a barber shop when he happened to be there getting a shave. His obsession goes further back, to his childhood, when his brother was shot in a case of mistaken identity. As far as he knew, the person to blame was long gone, shipped off to Atlanta right after it happened, but a chance encounter brings them together again, and he decides to see justice done.
Already, that’s a lot of plot and a lot of characters for one book to hold, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Besides the Wild Geese and their families, there are the Whites and their associates, plus Billy’s present-day crew and the crimes they’re investigating. It’s easy to get lost in all the names and relationships. I ended up reading most of the book in a single day, which I think was a good thing because when I put it down for a couple of days after I got started, I found it difficult to gather up all the threads. When I was immersed in the world, it was easier to follow.
And Price excels at creating a world to immerse yourself in. Police procedurals aren’t necessarily my favorite types of crime novels, but I do enjoy them now and then, and I enjoyed this. Price plunges right into the day-to-day work and the ways that work affects life outside the Job and long after the Job is past. One of the things I especially appreciated is how the daily grind just never stops. When the White Whales come swimming back, Billy has to deal with that on top of his daily work and his family troubles. And Ramos, it turns out, brings a whole separate set of complications that add to the pressure. The writing helps here, too. I liked Price’s voice—it’s just right for the story.
All these different threads address the challenge of getting justice and the frustration of seeing it denied. And it’s about guilt. The conclusion is unsettling, but somehow right, “reasonably happy,” as Billy says. A sort of justice done, but not a perfect one.