I’m currently reading The Whites, a highly praised cop/crime novel by Richard Price. And I’m having trouble. Good trouble, I suspect; though I can’t be sure. His words send me off on trips unrelated to the narrative. One detour is that I find myself not reading but wondering, paragraph after paragraph, how he gets it so seemingly right. I understand how someone like Michael Connelly creates the reality of his acclaimed books. He spent years as a reporter covering the police and the criminal court beat. But how does Price do it? Some of the great crime writers have been reporters, or cops, or criminal attorneys. Some of them have even done a stint as private eyes. They rely on what they observed over the years. It is a mix of imagination, recall and command of the language. Few, I think, achieve this level of realism or grit.
Has Price actually lived this cop life enough to know it so well that he can take me there? I tried to find out. He was one of the writers on the TV series, “The Wire.” He was a screenwriter for one of my favorite movies — Sea of Love. But then movies and projects like “The Wire” are different. Unlike a novel, they are collective efforts. Yet, it is not a big jump from the highly joint effort “The Wire” to The Whites, an only marginally a collective effort. Yet the grittiness comes through. And the word perhaps too popular now, “authenticity” rings loudly. I shake my head. Surely he does not live there.
In an interview in TheParis Review, he said he spent a lot of time researching and hanging out with the police, including ride-alongs in instances where he is not left alone in the backseat while the cops tend to business. He did (does) his homework. Much like a good reporter or photojournalist, there is a sense of courage and a willingness to impolitely intrude if need be.
So he extends himself, does whatever is necessary for his art. I’m impressed. He brings both journalism of sorts together with the art of literature. I can follow journalism without being taken in unexpected directions. I can read a straight-forward story, Robert Parker, Dashiell Hammett and the rest. I like interesting, informing, even puzzle-solving entertainment. But novels that pick you up and toss you around so much you have to fight your way back to the page is another story.
I’ll not tell you about the plot. That’s available elsewhere and I’m still in the midst of reading it. What I want to talk about is the dilemma a thought-provoking book provides — provoked thought. Sorry. I needed to emphasize the meaning of the cliché. Maybe I’m limited by my overall intelligence (stop smirking) or possibly age has shortened my attention span or I’m far too easily distracted. Strange and embarrassing. Most of the writers I read I don’t wonder how they do what they do. I may appreciate the artistry, even wish I could achieve it, but I’m not usually baffled by them.
So far in this book, one sentence may send me off into some abstract, often unrelated thought. Instead of going back to the book, I’m forced to leave the book to sort things out.
However, one very selfish question started to dominate my mind as I approached mid-book. Given what he is able to do, plunging deeply into both sides – cop and criminal, I have to ask myself, as a crime writer, what are my qualifications? I have no such courage. My rudeness is rarely constructive. I have not immersed myself in the extreme divide between cop and killer, so divided they are more like each other than they are the folks who are neither.
I console myself with the observation that however passive it might be, I write about the world I know, that I limit my expression to my experiences and that I write honestly about what would be therefore comparatively bland. I read a criticism once about someone tired of reading John Updike, saying he long ago stopped caring about middle class angst. While it may not be angst exactly or even all the way up to middle class, my Shanahan series takes place in a more civil, more settled world rather than the tough streets of Baltimore, let’s say.
I do have a hint at Price’s preparation. Only a hint. In Good to the Last Kiss, I ventured out. I did research the personally unlikely topic of serial killers. I not only spent time with the police in homicide, I spent days reading and listening to tapes of psychological research about this type of crime, as well as the sometimes horrific ramblings of serial killers talking about themselves, their lives and their crimes. I was depressed for weeks, maybe months. But I had ventured out, however briefly.
This is what Richard Price does regularly, it seems. In fact, this is what his main characters in The Whites do. After writing my grimmest novel, I kept my distance from the darkest reaches of the soul and spent more time working on books with less sensational crimes and more seductive plots, all in my comfort zone. I still connect my stories to social issues, but less intensely. And I stay with a reality well within my own experience, enhanced I hope by, a creative imagination. But I cannot regularly go where Richard Price goes. Maybe it’s the very real darkness he witnesses and translates that sends me away from his writing.
The result is that reading these kind of books has become more exhausting than writing books of lesser intensity. At least writing my own stories, I can adjust the light on reality for my own comfort while admiring a much braver soul in theory.