THE WHITES, by Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt. Henry Holt and Co., 333 pp., $28.
Early in the movie "The Blues Brothers," Elwood tries to sell Jake on the duo's new Bluesmobile, a used police car he picked up at auction to replace their old Cadillac. "It's got a cop motor," he explains. "Cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks." This isn't a bad way to describe what makes Richard Price's new novel so extraordinary, either. "The Whites," written under the pen name Harry Brandt, delivers a riveting crime tale thoroughly steeped in gritty cop irony, cop slang, cop attitudes and cop justice.
It centers on Billy Graves, a Nassau County-bred 42-year-old NYPD Night Watch detective, whose steady nocturnal diet of energy drinks, Camel Lights and homicides have left him so haggard, his "crushed-cellophane gaze" once earned him a senior citizens discount at the movies.
When he first joined the force in the 1990s, Billy rolled with a tight anti-crime crew called the Wild Geese, seven young, hungry cops who were "given a ticket to ride in one of the worst precincts of the East Bronx." Within five years, all seven had risen from "street soldier" to detective. There, working as investigators, each encountered what they called a "White" -- a personal adversary that "had committed criminal obscenities on their watch and walked away untouched by justice."
"The Whites" opens, as any good New York City police novel probably should, on the night of St. Patrick's Day. There's been a murder at Penn Station on the "long, greasy, lower-level arcade" that brings Long Island commuters to the subway. "The victim lay on his side, neck and torso compressed into a hunch, his left arm and leg thrust straight out before him as if he were trying to kick his own fingertips."
The stiff happens to be one Wild Geese member's White. Soon other Whites fall as well. Are the deaths a coincidence? Or is it open season on bad guys? Meanwhile, a haunted, brutal man with tragic ties to Billy closes in. He's out to settle an old debt -- and he has a reputation for exacting the ultimate price.
Price, the Bronx-raised author of "Clockers" and "Lush Life," is known for his vivid portrayals of the streets, and here he draws physical and emotional torment knowingly and authentically. "The Whites" is especially good at capturing New York City's peculiar brand of violent crime. One of Billy's runs late in the book, for example, is a "four a.m. outdoor scene in the West Village, where a homeowner had been shot by his lawn mower while cutting the backyard." (A stray, live .357 round hidden in the grass was sucked up and ignited.) Later, there's the theft of a "two-hundred-pound bluefin tuna worth seven thousand dollars from the kitchen of a sushi restaurant on Park Avenue South."
Family and loyalty figure prominently in the book's narrative. Billy's father, a former cop, lives with him, and he refuses to put the old man in a home although his mind is slipping. Over the years, nearly all of the Wild Geese have given shelter to each other's family members, and when the police ask Billy to name former colleagues he's had "run-ins" with, he refuses. " 'Because there's not one of them I can't pick up the phone and call myself,' he said. 'Because there's no need to bring up dead and buried beefs from back in the stone age.' "
But perhaps the chief pleasure of this book is its language. For the Night Watch, sunrises are "cruel mirages, each one a false promise that a tour had come to its end." One character's mien makes him "appear as if he were perpetually attempting to pick up a distant voice bearing important news." A child cries in the night, "the sleepy but insistent oscillations of her voice coming down on his ears like the offbeat siren of some alien ambulance."
Early in the book, Billy and another Wild Geese member visit the family of a victim, and the father perfectly captures what "The Whites" brilliantly portrays -- the tragic human desire to see the violent among us pay violently for their sins. "Our pastor says Jesus wants us to try and forgive," he says, "but I'll tell you, these last few years? I'm all about the God of the Jews."