“I’m a novelist. I’m a good novelist and I’ll get better. I’ve found my calling and if I have my way I’ll be turning out books for the next half-century, books that will blow people away.”
–Richard Price, 1976
The Whites, the new novel by Richard Price (“writing as Harry Brandt”) which is finally being released today, began as an attempt at slumming. Since 1992, Price has been putting out novels that focus on urban crime, some of which could reasonably be called murder mysteries. But he’s always considered his interest in that subject matter to be a reflection of his interest in the extremes of human behavior, as befits someone writing respectable literary fiction: “I don’t like crime books,” he’s said, “and I don’t ever want to see my stuff in the crime section. I don’t want to be genre-ized.”
At some point, however, he changed his mind: “I wanted to do a more orthodox urban thriller,” he now says, “and I talked to my agent [Lynn Nesbit] and said, ‘I’m so sick of writing screenplays for money.’ She said, ‘I could probably get you the money that you would get for a screenplay [under a pseudonym].'” And so it was announced in 2010 that Price would be writing a series of detective novels under a pen name (which at the time was supposed to be “Jay Morris,” a mix of his middle name and the first name of his poet grandfather, whom he’s cited as an inspiration).
Again, though, that was back in 2010. If Price thought that “a more orthodox urban thriller” was something he could crank out overnight, he obviously turned out to be wrong. Years passed, “Jay Morris” became “Harry Brandt” (an homage to Price’s old literary agent Carl Brandt, along with a first name Price just thought was cool), and, according to glowing early reviews, Brandt’s The Whites emerged looking very much like the work of Richard Price. Michiko Kakutani writes in The New York Times that it “doesn’t give the reader the keen sense of changing class and race lines that Mr. Price’s 2008 novel, ‘Lush Life,’ did, but… this novel is, at once, a gripping police procedural and an affecting study in character and fate.” The Washington Post even calls it “a masterpiece, to stand with such earlier Price classics as ‘Clockers‘ (1992) and ‘Lush Life’ (2008).”
The plot follows Billy Graves, a New York City detective who formerly belonged to a notorious Bronx unit known as the “Wild Geese.” The book’s title is drawn from Moby-Dick (which was also alluded to in Clockers and Freedomland) and is short for “white whales,” meaning criminals who were never caught and become an obsession for the cops who pursued them. In the first chapter Graves finds one such figure slashed to death in Penn Station, and his investigation of that murder turns into a nightmare that spirals out of control.
Or I assume it does, anyway. I haven’t read The Whites yet, as I haven’t had the opportunity to do so until its release today, so this post won’t be a review so much as an epilogue for this blog itself. Priced Out was always scheduled so that I’d have all of Richard Price’s past works reviewed by the time The Whites was on shelves, and while I now think I may write another Whites post once I’ve had the chance to read the book, I don’t think I want to continue reviewing his stuff as it comes out. I’m going to continue reading/watching it, for sure, but I want to be able to enjoy it without having to hop online immediately afterwards to parse out how good of a job it’s doing holding up his legacy.
That being said, if I were reviewing his stuff as it’s released, I’d have plenty of fodder for future posts. This is a good time to be a Richard Price fan, as he’s got a whole bunch of projects coming down the pipeline, including:
• Child 44, a feature film adapted by Price from the novel by Tom Rob Smith, due out April 17. Tom Hardy stars as a disgraced Soviet intelligence agent tracking a child murderer in Stalin-era Russia. Price has been working on this since at least 2008.
• Crime, an HBO miniseries written by Price and based on the BBC series Criminal Justice. Crime was originally set to star the late James Gandolfini, whose death left the project up in the air until Robert De Niro stepped in to fill the lead role. De Niro himself then departed due to scheduling issues and was replaced by John Turturro. The show is currently in production.
• An HBO series about Times Square in the ’70s, co-written with Price’s The Wire collaborators David Simon and George Pelecanos. Simon has a more extensive description on the “In Development” page of his blog. Cool to hear that this project may still come to fruition, but it does seem to undermine my earlier assumption that Simon’s recent quote “I’m working [present tense] with Richard Price” meant that Price is involved with Simon’s upcoming Yonkers-based nonfiction miniseries Show Me a Hero.
• An untitled, in-development Fox crime drama about “a twentysomething Wall Street portfolio manager who unwittingly becomes a pawn in the DA’s attempts to take down a criminal organization.”
• A novel set in Harlem which Price owes to the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This obligation was part of why Price had to put The Whites out under a pseudonym.
I’m happy that all this stuff is on the way. I was familiar with a lot of Richard Price’s work before I started Priced Out, but doing this blog has only confirmed that he has a uniquely rich and varied back catalogue; I don’t know of any other writer who’s done so much vital work on both the page and the screen. There were very few projects he contributed to that I didn’t enjoy (including the ones he considers creatively compromised), and even the worst of them were still interesting in terms of their ambition or the insight they provided into the people and institutions that produced them. I said in my original introductory post that I wanted to write about his body of work because it’s “big and diverse enough to provide lots of material to dig into, but still has a distinctive enough identity of its own for overarching themes to emerge,” and indeed they have: It was cool to see the contradictions of police work as explored in Freedomland resurface in the Shaft reboot, and to track how the research methods that produced Clockers originated with The Color of Money and went on to inform projects as commercial as Money Train. And on a geekier level, it was fun to keep count of Obligatory Richard Price Cameos, and to identify signature Price touches like the line “Guy wiggles his fingers and five people die in Oklahoma.”
If you’re totally unfamiliar with Price–well, I’m not quite sure how you ended up here, but read Clockers. If you’ve read Clockers already, read Price’s bittersweet debut The Wanderers, or the hilarious Ladies’ Man, or the touchingly rueful Lush Life, or watch the masterful Scorsese segment from New York Stories or the criminally obscure De Niro/Murray/Thurman showcase Mad Dog and Glory. If you haven’t watched The Wire yet, Jesus, by all means, get to it. Best of all, go buy a copy of The Whites and support what Richard Price does so that we can continue getting more of it.
I’m going to end this at the beginning, with the de facto theme song from Price’s first novel, embedded below. If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you’re new to it, I’ve listed the old entries on the “Chronology” page; click around, explore. Either way, thanks for visiting.