By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Richard Price, aka Harry Brandt
Narration by: Ari Fliakos
“The Whites” is a story about unreasonable expectation. George Orwell suggests, “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection”. Keeping Orwell’s thought in mind, police departments are organizations made by, and for, humans that are expected to be perfect. “The Whites” is a story that explains how the ideal of “Serve and Protect”, posted on the side of many police vehicles, becomes distorted.
“The Whites”, a novel written by Richard Price, initially overwhelms its listener by the violence of too many murders committed during several shifts of a New York police department. The officer in charge of a night shift is Sergeant Billy Graves. Billy is a second generation cop. His father, wife, and two boys live in the same house. His father has recurrent memory lapses but still exhibits the sharp instincts of an experienced beat cop. Billy’s wife is a nurse who appears at times detached but firmly committed to her husband and children. His two sons are less well-defined but struggle with normal coming-of-age’ angst.
Billy pragmatically manages his night shift with some officers that are only there for overtime; while others are committed neophytes or grizzled veterans. When a purported child killer is found dead, Billy becomes wary of recent deaths of criminals accused but not convicted by law enforcement. All of the deaths seem to be people who are either known or alleged criminals. Evidence mounts to suggest a vigilante, with police experience, is acting as judge, jury, and executioner for murders of several accused, but not convicted, criminals.
Price recounts the history of his main character, Billy, when he first joined the force. Billy accidentally kills a young boy in an attempted armed robbery. The young boy is standing behind one of the perpetrators. Billy is accused of being “coked up” when he shoots the robbery suspect. The bullet passes through the suspect to kill the young boy. Billy is protected by his department from an aggressive reporter that has verification of Billy’s drug use.
The reporter’s career is ruined by the department’s stonewalling. As evidence of goodwill, Billy stays in touch with the reporter because he knows she is right about the incident that nearly ruins his career. One is inclined to believe Billy is a good cop who foolishly made a mistake that results in an unforeseeable accident. Billy cleans up after this early career incident. As departmental punishment, Billy is relegated to skut work for several years. However, he earns a reputation for being a good supervising cop and is eventually offered management of a night shift.
Price brings the listener back to the present and Billy’s suspicion about, what appear to be, vigilante murders. This is the crux of the story. Billy solves the murders which implicate his best friend and a number of fellow officers. The author ratchets-up tension in the story by introducing an NYPD cop that bares a grudge against Billy or someone in his family. This grudging cop surreptitiously threatens different members of Billy’s family. The author is cleverly introducing another angle in a search for a universal definition of justice. Price leaves that definition to the audience’s imagination.
A picture is painted of how a policeman’s desire, to “Serve and Protect”, becomes distorted. Price tells a poignant story of Billy’s best friend who is about to lose his son to a rare disease. Billy’s close friend rages against the idea of God. He curses belief in any God who lets the “scum” of the earth live while those who are trying to make the world better for themselves or others–die.
Some may conclude Price’s story is not about corruption but justice. Others will say rationalized vigilantism is a slippery slope to Hell. Many realize the phrase “Serve and Protect” is limited to the truth of being human. Choosing to be a cop, like being a priest, creates an unreasonable expectation that humans can be perfect. Most will have an opinion about God, vigilantism, justice, and being human after listening to Richard Price’s novel, “The Whites”.