The Short Version: Twenty years ago, a group of cops known as the Wild Geese were an aggressive anti-crime unit. Today, only one of them – Billy Graves – is still on the force, working the literal graveyard shift. When an old perp who got away (known, colloquially, as a White) from the Geese is found dead at Penn Station during his shift, Billy is drawn into a case that he doesn’t want and that might forever change not just his present but his past. And all the while, another cop is circling Billy’s family…
The Review: I’d like to comment first on the difference between the paperback and hardcover editions of this book – namely, the paperback does away entirely with the conceit of Harry Brandt, the pseudonym that Price adopted for this novel. Except that, on that hardcover, Brandt barely gets lip service: the novel is “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt”. Sometimes this makes sense – Sebastian Faulks “writing as Ian Fleming” for Devil May Care, for example – but in a circumstance of a living author taking on a pseudonym… why not just lean into it? Even Stephen King, long after Richard Bachman had been ‘outed’, kept up the facade on Blaze. J.K. Rowling continues to publish Robert Galbraith novels under ‘his’ name as opposed to cheekily putting hers on the front. So why, then, did Price hedge?
I can’t speak to his earlier work, although Lush Life has been on my “I should pick that up” list for some years now, and thus I can’t say whether or not he found the conceit tiring or if he just realized that the book wasn’t different enough from his other work. Whatever the reason, though, I couldn’t help but be thinking of it occasionally while reading The Whites – because it feels, at times, like the work of an author whose focus was split.
Part of this is due to the structure of the novel: large numbered chapters following Billy Graves are interjected with short, clipped interludes introducing Milton Ramos (and titled each with his name, as though the book swung through some massive rotating cast of POVs). Milton first appears as a terrifying bad cop and it is unclear, for quite some time, why exactly he’s a part of this story – and when it does become clear, it seems oddly like a separate story that never quite coheres with the larger one that Price is trying to tell. It’s almost a short story or novella that happens to intersect with the Billy Graves / Wild Geese tale, even covering similar themes, but the moment when the two stories come together doesn’t have the propulsive quality that you’d hope for from a denouement.
Speaking of propulsive, there are quotes and blurbs – like Michael Connelly’s from The New York Times Book Review – that imply that this book is a thriller of the highest order. Connelly’s, specifically, states that the book is “as unstoppable as a train coming through a tunnel” and while I don’t like to respond to other reviews, this one shall be an exception to the rule for the quip that it sets up: the book, to me, was not so much an unstoppable train as a weekday morning downtown 6 local. (For the non-New Yorkers, the 6 runs the length of Manhattan on the East Side and it is my daily commute.) It starts, stops, sometimes sits for inexplicable amounts of times, sometimes unexpectedly goes express to make up for lost time… but it ultimately gets you right where you knew you were going. When I think of a propulsive thriller, I’m inclined to lean towards the work of writers like Jo Nesbø or Mssrs. Preston & Child or even Don Winslow (who Price beat out, I think you might say if you were a longlist prognosticator like me, for a slot on this year’s Tournament of Books bracket): they thrust you into a situation and the tension ratchets up and you are racing to get to the end of the book. Whereas this one… this one, I sometimes found myself wondering why I was meant to care.
It’s not to say that these characters are vivid and valuable as individuals, because they are. Graves is a complex not-quite-hero, who is willing to take certain stands while letting other things slide, and the rest of the Whites have their own totally human foibles and quirks. And Price captures the grind of keeping the rest of us safe in a way that makes you think he must’ve, at some point, done it: how else to explain his dedication to showing the monotony of Graves’ shift, the ultimately unsatisfying police work that nevertheless ensures that bad guys do get caught… and the ones who don’t, well, they haunt cops for the rest of their lives. It’s nothing new, but it is well articulated here.
I think I have to dip into a SPOILER ahead, so please be forewarned.
It’s just a shame, to my mind, that Price doesn’t commit a little more breathlessly to his theme: that these cops, talented and intelligent defenders of the law, might also be willing to take it into their own hands if they knew they could get away with it. And who better to know how to get away with something than the people who are supposed to be chasing down the people doing the somethings in the first place? Again, this isn’t new – Batman on down – but Price gives enough of a quirk to the story that you wish he really committed to doing something bold and innovative with the telling. Are we meant to draw a parallel between Milton and Billy and how they behave in the pursuit of vengeance and justice? But what, then, do we do about the already-drawn and altogether-far-more-interesting parallel between Billy and the rest of the WGs? As the story careened and jerked its way towards the inevitable conclusion, I found myself wondering just what I was supposed to be doing with this story and what Price hoped he would achieve here. Did he set out just to write a solid, unremarkable thriller leavened with some snappy prose? Perhaps. Maybe that’s all he needed. But it’s not what I wanted or expected.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Price does have a gift for language and his depiction of New York City – a city I now know very well, but a city whose facelift (the one I’m familiar with) is still pretty fresh – strikes a great balance between the city we live in today and the city’s history, which looms large just behind the curtain. When the prose crackles, it crackles. But all too often, it lurches along like a delayed subway line and while it delivers you to your ultimate destination – an obvious one, it should be said, from the minute the book begins – it does so in frustrating fashion. I wanted to love this and, at times, thought I might… but ultimately, it’s nothing more than an ordinary crime novel.