Price, Richard. The Whites.

NY: Henry Holt, 2015.

I’ve been aware of Price for a few years, ever since the rave reviews of Clockers, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading him before now. But this one has been on everyone’s “Best of the Year” list, so I gave it a shot. I’m glad I did. It’s certainly on my own list of the year’s best.

You think at first it’s going to be a standard police procedural in format, starting out as it does with the thoughts of Detective Sergeant Billy Graves as he drives to work, of how St. Patrick’s Day is one of New York City’s ugliest and most violent “drinking holidays.” But it’s far, far more than that. And while there’s a deepening mystery threaded through most of the narrative, it’s not merely a “detective story,” either.

Twenty years ago, when Billy was a fresh young Irish street cop, he was one of seven in one of the worst precincts in the East Bronx who called themselves the “Wild Geese.” (A reference to Irish history.) They were larger than life in the anti-crime unit for a few years, until they all moved up to a detective’s gold shield. But even though they spread out professionally, they remained close personally until and after retirement. And they’ve always helped each other and backed each other up without question — which is going to become a problem.

Now, Billy, the youngest of the bunch, is the only one still on the job. A few years before, he got the brass mad at him and so he’s in semi-exile, running the Night Watch, “a strictly one-and-done” unit responsible for fielding reports of major crimes for the five hours beginning at midnight in Manhattan South and dealing with them until they can handed off to the day crew. Which means Billy generally gets to see the very worst behavior in the city.

The title refers to the Great White Whale of Moby-Dick, Ahab’s obsession. Because every detective has a case he obsesses over in which the Bad Guy “walked away, untouched by justice,” either through lack of good evidence or because someone screwed up. Certainly, each of the old WGs has one of those, and each one of the group knows all the details of each other’s cases. And then one of the Whites meets a grisly end, the news of which doesn’t upset Billy or his friends at all. But when a second one, and then a third, buys the farm, he begins to wonder. No good detective — and Billy, despite everything, is a good one — believes in coincidence.

Billy has a wife and two young sons he adores. Carmen, now a triage nurse, can be hard work sometimes because she has her own problems from earlier in her life. They will become a major part of the story, too. And then there’s Milton Ramos, a detective who knows he should never have been promoted from patrol, and who lives with violence in both his past and his present. Milton is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve met in some time and the reader watches in apprehension as it gradually becomes clear just how much of an extremely dangerous loose cannon he really is.

Price leads you through this gray and bloody landscape like a tour guide pointing out the sights. His descriptions of actors and events are so spot-on, you can taste the grit. Like, “the food odors of three continents crept down the elevator shaft like fog.” Or, “Castro inhaled again, blew out enough smoke to announce a pope.” And his dialogue is some of the best I’ve heard — because you will certainly hear it. (This may because he’s also a noted screenwriter, which requires a good ear.) I’ll definitely be tracking down his earlier books.

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