Unsolved crimes that obsess police inspire writer Richard Price

GWEN IFILL: Now: a novel about old tragedies and new crimes.

Jeff is back to introduce you to what's on the NewsHour bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: They're the criminals who get away with something awful and become an obsession for the police officers first assigned to the case.

Richard Price calls these men the whites, after the great white whale in "Moby-Dick."  And it's the name of his new novel. Price is well-known for his eight previous novels, as well as for screenplays for films and TV, including "The Wire."

Here, he writes under the pseudonym Harry Brandt.

And welcome to you.

RICHARD PRICE, writing as Harry Brandt: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: We will get to the pseudonym business later.

But, first, let me ask you, why police stories? What's the fascination for you?

RICHARD PRICE: Well, because it's — I don't write police stories, per se, but I usually write about areas that are very panoramic, like Harlem, or the Lower East Side, or a small urban city like Jersey City.

And I have found the best way to navigate that big panoramic landscape, so it doesn't look like a travelogue is latch on to a crime that is indicative of the tensions in that area, and follow the investigation. Investigations are chronological, and they're orderly, and they bring in everybody, witnesses, family, the housing projects, where both the victim and the perp live, the yuppie that was in from Colorado.

JEFFREY BROWN: Everybody.

RICHARD PRICE: Yes. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: And when you say indicative, so you mean you are looking at something larger?

RICHARD PRICE: I'm looking for something that will show the shifting tectonic plates in a place, that, if it's all — it's being gentrified, yet there are lifers that have grown up in poverty in that area.

And if an encounter takes place that involves something violent between the two, and if I follow the investigation, it's my spine to an amorphous big amoeba of a — geography.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how concerned are you to get the details right? Because I read interesting things about research, of spending time with police officers. But then it sounds like, at some point, you throw it all aside and just write?

RICHARD PRICE: Well, what happens is, I will take copious — I won't take copious notes, but I will always take notes. But when I go home, I look at them, and they're on steno pads, and I can't remember if I wrote like this or like that. And it's illegible.

And then, after a year, I figured, whatever I don't remember wasn't worth it. Whatever was important to me, I don't need to look up in my notes.

JEFFREY BROWN: This idea of the whites, as I said, this sort of obsession that a lot of cops get with a case that they never could solve, that was a way — and you write about a group of young police officers sort of as — even as they age, some out of the police force, they are still obsessed.

This was a rich vein for you to tell different kinds of stories?

RICHARD PRICE: It's a phenomenon that I discovered.

I started out hanging out with a detective squad in 1986 to write "Sea of Love," the Al Pacino movie. And the first guy I met had an obsession with a highway shooting outside of Yeshiva University, where two Yeshiva students were killed. And nobody ever caught the guy.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Manhattan.

RICHARD PRICE: Yes. And he was obsessed — he was going off into retirement — with this case.

Now, he's in an area where there's so many more bloody crimes with so many more victims, yet this case somehow spoke to something in his gut, that he couldn't get rid of it. And the more I hung out with detective squads, the more there was always one guy or two guys or a woman who had a case that they were the primary on years ago, it was never solved, and they take that case into their retirements.

They will go home, they will drink a couple of beers, they will go through files that they stole. And they will call up relatives from Upstate New York, or, you know, nobody interviewed the coffee guy that served coffee to the guy that we know is the shooter.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for you, it becomes backstory and backstory, and then later layered kinds of stories.

RICHARD PRICE: Yes.

But I love personalness and the mystery of why this crime responded — and why this detective responded to it. And it's like malaria. They can't get rid of this obsession. It comes and goes until the day they die.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you about the pseudonym.

I want to pull that — the cover back up, Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. Did you want to be — to write not as you, but then you were you? What — explain this.

RICHARD PRICE: What you said.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

RICHARD PRICE: I originally wanted to write a book that was going to be purely genre, unlike my other books, that were, like, you know, barbell weights.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Genre, meaning a crime. You wanted…

RICHARD PRICE: Yes. I wanted to write a straight-up urban thriller.

I don't — and what you see is what you get, and all you care about is who did what to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

RICHARD PRICE: You establish the characters, and you just go — and what happened is, what was supposed to be a six-month bang-up job became a four-year obsession of my own.

And it turned out just like any other book with my name on it. So, at this point, I regret that I took a pen name. It's kind of confusing. But at the time, I had my own reasons. And by the time I realized I didn't want to have the pen name anymore, it was too late.

JEFFREY BROWN: Makes for a good story, though, at this point, right?

RICHARD PRICE: It do, it do.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We are going to continue the conversation online.

I will invite the audience to join us there later.

But for now, Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt, "The Whites," thanks very much. Thank you very much.

RICHARD PRICE: You're welcome.