His new novel The Whites is just out, and Richard Price is second-guessing his decision to use a pseudonym, Harry Brandt.
Why, after all, use a pen name when the subject and treatment of The Whites is so closely aligned with the novels Price has published under his own name, well-regarded crime thrillers like Clockers and Lush Life? “Yeah, why a pen name?” Price muses, speaking with Kirkus Reviews from his home in Manhattan. “I keep asking that question myself.”
The answer lies in the twists and turns a story can take—for, as every writer knows, books have lives of their own.
“When I started out,” says Price, “I thought I’d try something different, at least different for me. I was thinking of writing a book that would be in the classic urban thriller genre. I thought I had a sense of what the rules are: a mystery is propelling the story, you read it with an eye to finding the solution to the mystery, you try to outsmart the writer. The action is more important than anything else. But as I started writing it, I got more and more into the characters, and the book kind of expanded on me. Before I knew it, I was writing—well, one of my novels. It became a Richard Price book.”
Not that a Richard Price book is a bad thing. Far from it. Few crime novelists are as good at taut storytelling as Price, and most of the ones who are, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos among them, learned at his feet. Though Price professes to be mystified by the rules of the urban crime genre, he’s set many of them. For one thing, no one is clean; for another, everyone nurses secrets and hides bits and pieces of their sordid, or at least untidy, lives; for still another, everyone hauls around bucketloads of regrets. Still, regrets and secrets and original sin notwithstanding, things move along with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy: everyone can see bad things coming, but no one can figure out how to get out of the way of the great karmic steamroller that’s bearing down on the scene.
Take Price/Brandt’s hero, Billy Graves. He’s famous among New York’s gendarmerie for his near-mythical talents as a crimefighter. He’s infamous among civil libertarians and the brass, though, for his one big mistake, when a bullet nearly cut short the life of an innocent kid instead of the bad guy for whom it was intended. Was Billy coked up when he pulled the trigger, as was alleged? Why did the bullet go tumbling along on the path that it did? Is Billy sabotaging his own career? And what’s with the onetime perp who’s now lying dead in Penn Station all these years later, anyway? Those questions are the stuff of the classic crime thriller, and Price takes them up as the story moves along, and as Graves struggles to get himself out of the hole of bad shifts and crummy assignments to which he’s been consigned.
Billy bears burdens, to say nothing of grudges. But grudges are nothing new in his line of work; as he acknowledges, “although money was the prime motivation for those signing up for a one-off tour with Night Watch, occasionally a detective volunteered not so much for the overtime but simply because it facilitated his stalking.” Stalkers stalk, even as perps become victims and the whole city of New York becomes a set for a sprawling, multiplayer game of cat and mouse. Vengeance is mine, saith the lord indeed, but in a city like that, full of cost-cutting and looking the other way and blame-shifting, it’s easy for citizens to become vigilantes—and easier still for thwarted cops to pursue retribution on their own time.
It’s a rich setup, tense and sweaty and full of spasms of violence, madness, and remorse—in short, classic Price territory, but without falling into the cliches of the police procedural. “I’m into voice and character,” he says. “Look at Chandler, or Lehane or Pelecanos. Yes, technically speaking it’s a crime book, but it’s so much more—a window on the world that goes far beyond who did it.”
That’s just the case with another project with which Price is increasingly identified, namely the HBO drama The Wire, which was always under his influence but which he came to late in its run as a contributing writer, writing six of its most highly praised episodes. “Yes, 99 percent of men agree that the new cure for prostate cancer still isn’t as good as The Wire,” he jokes. “I was watching it like a fiend for two years before I started writing for it, and I loved it.”
Like The Whites, The Wire, which wrapped more than six years ago but is acquiring near-mythical status of its own, had a kind of democratic vision of how life works—which is to say, though there was a clear lead character, the action and attention were broadly distributed so that each of the supporting players got to do something meaningful whenever they’re on. It means that life goes on when one of the players leaves the stage, and it means that storylines can take their time being developed and connected: there’s none of Hollywood script seminars’ rigorous rules of story arc and beats and climaxes in the series.
Just so, Price’s new novel takes its time establishing the complex messiness in which his story unfolds. Complex and messy, yes, but there’s plenty of room in The Whites for a sequel, if Price should choose to do one. That’s an open question, though; as he notes, the book was supposed to be a quick one to turn around, but the six months he’d planned on turned into four years. One senses that Price is relieved that it’s done, though he’s too stoical to complain.
One thing seems certain, though: Harry Brandt won’t be the credited author of the next Billy Graves adventure. “Looking back on it,” Price says, “I don’t think the pen name was such a great idea. I foiled myself, and the pseudonym causes more confusion than clarification.” So after this book, at the moment, Brandt is retired, leaving it to hardworking Richard Price to soldier on alone, chronicling urban mayhem, crafting memorable characters, and inviting the reader to outsmart him.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.