There’s an enormous amount to love about Richard Price’s crime novel The Whites, enough to make it difficult to know where to start. The title is a reference to Moby-Dick – the white whale that haunts Herman Melville’s novel, and which is hunted mercilessly through its pages but ultimately escapes. In Price’s book, the ‘Whites’ are those perpetrators of crimes who have somehow evaded justice, each one the quarry of one particular detective. It is when these Whites start to die in unusual circumstances that Sergeant Billy Graves begins to wonder whether this is a purely random series of events.
Price’s writing is pleasingly muscular. It deftly walks the line between efficient, focused narrative (one unhappy detective is described as having ‘a face like a fist‘) and the empathetic excursions into the personal lives of his characters. Billy Graves is a disgraced cop now leading the Night Watch, a job described as ‘his banishment to the underworld.’ Alongside this Graves also juggles two young sons, a wife with her own mysterious baggage and a father (also an ex-cop) in the early stages of dementia. Graves is a remarkably rounded character, and one with whom the reader quickly sympathises. As the novel progresses and Graves’ family come under threat, we understand the battle between his private loyalties and professional duties.
In a book full of memorable scenes, one of the most vivid describes Graves confronting his own White, triple-murderer Curtis Taft: ‘The sight of his White made Billy tingle with a rush of dazed energy, made his eyes brim with light.‘ Taft is lying in a hospital bed, effectively at the mercy of this avenging angel – and yet physical violence is not what Graves wants; he wants a confession. The dialogue is crisp, perfectly conveying Graves’ controlled rage and the far-reaching consequences of Taft’s actions. ‘Perforated ulcer, huh? As far as I’m concerned they are all in there, all those angry females chewing you up from inside out. And when they finally cut you open, you know what they’re going to find? Teeth marks, motherfucker, nothing but teeth marks.‘
The Whites is a book all about consequences, and how the past never really goes away. This is clear not only in the central narrative but also in some beautifully precise vignettes describing the cases Graves picks up whilst on Night Watch. Only one or two pages long, they nevertheless pulse with energy and feeling and heartbreak, all of them creating the illusion of a living, breathing city. I once heard a screenwriter say the mark of a good film was the audience’s belief that its characters existed before and after the action shown in the movie. That’s certainly the case with The Whites, whose whole cast – from bit parts to leading roles – Richard Price draws with clarity and care.