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SAMARITAN by Richard Price Kirkus Star

SAMARITAN

By Richard Price

Pub Date: Jan. 13th, 2003
ISBN: 0-375-41115-1
Publisher: Knopf

The mastery of urban melodrama that Price demonstrated in literate blockbusters like Clockers (1992), and Freedomland (1998) keeps growing and deepening—as evidenced in his seventh novel.

It’s the story of a neighborhood and of conflicting ways of life, set in Price’s fictional Dempsy, New Jersey, not far from New York City. And its central figures are two 40-something former neighborhood acquaintances: white TV scriptwriter Ray Mitchell, who has returned from La-La-Land newly wealthy, to teach a writing course at his old high school—and, just possibly, reconnect with his teenaged daughter Ruby; and black police detective Nerese Ammons, whose planned early retirement is delayed when she learns that Ray has been savagely beaten by an assailant whom he refuses to identify. A virtuoso alternation of advancing action with detailed flashbacks shows how Nerese’s investigation into this mystery raises troublesome ghosts from the past, while also introducing a boldly drawn gallery of involved and potentially guilty characters. The prime suspects appear to be Danielle Martinez, the wife of a jailed drug dealer, with whom Ray has a brief, intense affair; the murderous Freddy Martinez himself; and Coley Rodgers (a.k.a. Salim El-Amin), a luckless denizen of Dempsy’s mean streets who takes mercenary advantage of liberal, big-hearted Ray’s impulses to be a good “Samaritan” to those less fortunate than he. That latter dynamic is analyzed with a ferocious admixture of bleak wit and sorrowful compassion, and the story positively vibrates with Price’s trademark virtues of pinpoint observation (e.g., Nerese notices a TV set “so recently purchased that a few minute shreds of static-charged packing foam still clung to the gunmetal-gray-frame”) and punchy dialogue (a onetime repeat offender wryly boasts, “I don’t just have a record, my man, I have a fucking album”). And the killer climax and ironic dénouement couldn’t be improved upon.

Magnificent stuff. If Elmore Leonard broke out of genre and were 30 years younger, he’d be Richard Price.