GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2015
The Whites, by Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt.
It is my misfortune that I have not read any of Richard Price’s previous novels. After reading ‘The Whites’ I now want to devour all earlier work, regardless of whether he uses a pseudonym or not! According to the cover notes, ‘The Whites’ is his first thriller – well, I certainly hope it won’t be his last: Mr Price is a master of suspense and knows better than most writers of the genre exactly how to keep the reader turning the pages at a furious rate. His characters are larger than life but live and breathe as we do, trying to make the most of their existence on this earth for themselves and their loved ones – which is the sole aim of Billy Graves.
Billy Graves is an NYPD detective permanently working on the night shift, not by choice but as punishment for a long ago mistake he made, aiming to shoot a criminal but bringing down a 10 year-old boy as well. His atonement will last for the rest of his life but he is supported by his wife Carmen, a registered nurse, his family and a group of staunch friends, ex-cops who are now all retired but have one thing in common: they call themselves the Wild Geese, and are completely loyal to each other. Their aim is to eventually bring to justice criminals who quite literally have gotten away with murder, and every member of the Wild Geese has a ‘pet’ crim, one that they wish the most painful death imaginable on. These monsters are known as ‘the Whites’.
Billy’s own particular monster is Curtis Taft, killer of his ex-girlfriend, her 14 year-old niece and her 4 year old daughter, afterwards going home to sleep with his new girlfriend. Billy wants him dead, but not before he suffers first.
The other WGs feel exactly the same way but are seemingly astonished when the Whites, one by one, start to die or disappear presumed dead, and it is Billy’s job as the only unretired member of the band to investigate the homicides. What he discovers fills him with dread, but worse things are to follow: someone is stalking his family.
His son comes home from school having been patted on the back by a stranger who left a red handprint on his jacket – red paint, but looking like the real thing; Billy’s father, an ex-policeman in the early stages of dementia is collected from home and taken to his old beat miles away, causing the family terrible consternation until he is found; and a bag of red-stained children’s clothing is thrown on Billy’s lawn – paint again, but the inference is clear.
Suspense mounts with every page, despite the reader being informed in the first few chapters of the stalker’s identity for Mr Price (Brandt?) has created a character with which the reader has a real love/hate relationship. He is a master observer of the myriad faults of human nature, and just how far a man can go to protect those dear to him before he finds it impossible to live with himself. This is a great story from a very fine writer. Highly recommended.
The Dog Who Saved Me, by Susan Wilson.
Susan Wilson’s ‘One Good Dog’ was the first of her books that I lucked onto in our library; how fortunate was I to discover her, for to any animal-lover she is the author of choice. So far in my experience, no-one is better than she at writing of the great bond between man and dog; the power of such a friendship to redeem a damaged human – and the terrible cruelty that man can inflict on a creature who is prepared to trust him completely.
Cooper Harrison is just such a damaged human. He was formerly a member of Boston’s K-9 unit, happy in his work, his marriage, and with Argos, his beloved Alsatian partner: what a team they were! Until Argos is killed in action and Cooper is badly wounded, and try as he might, he can’t manage his life after such a tragedy. His wounds are severe but are nothing compared to the grief he feels at the loss of his devoted canine friend. Gradually his formerly ordered life starts to unravel: his marriage fails; he resigns from the force, and if it weren’t for an offer of a job as Animal Control Officer from the Chief of Police of his former home town, Harmony Farms, his future would be unthinkable.
As it is, Cooper knows he must ‘man up’; ‘get over it’(!) and ‘stop feeling sorry for himself’, but Harmony Farms is not the place where he wants to rehabilitate himself, for he left a father who was the town drunk, and an older brother, a vicious bully who decided that selling drugs would be his occupation of choice – until he was caught and got a twelve-year sentence for drug-trafficking. He will have finished his sentence soon. They are the last people that Cooper wants to make contact with; that was why he left Harmony Farms the day after he graduated high school; to get away from his pathetically dysfunctional home life and turn himself into the opposite of what his father and brother were. He intends to avoid them as much as he can – if possible.
And he does, for the most part. And he is surprised to find that the work of being a glorified dog-catcher is not as onerous as he first thought. In his wrangling of and search for missing pets he reacquaints himself with good people from his youth, people who don’t regard him as a laughing-stock because of his family. Even though he swears he won’t do the job for more than a year, he finds a certain satisfaction in caring for animals and rehoming strays during the day – but the nights are hard to bear: that is when the nightmares take over. Since he lost Argos, dreamless sleep has become a rarity, and continues as he hears reports of a skinny yellow dog, a stray that favours its hind leg but is still agile enough to raid trash cans and slink around chicken coops. Yep, all part of the day’s work: Cooper will trap the dog, find out who owns it (or not) and proceed to the next case. In a perfect world – for what he discovers when the dog is eventually found is a case of such blatant cruelty that his old policing instincts come to the fore. Whoever did this must be found and punished. If the same terrible abuse were done to a human being the guilty one would be imprisoned for years: it should not be any different for a helpless animal.
Once again, Susan Wilson tugs at the heart-strings, but she is such a quality writer that the reader feels privileged to enter Cooper’s story, harrowing as it is. All her characters are true-blue, even Cooper’s sorry father and brother, the lesson being that not everyone is beyond redemption, as long as the will to change is still alive. Highly recommended.
The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick
Bartholomew Neil has lived with his staunchly Catholic mother in the same house in Philadelphia for all of his thirty-eight years. He never knew his father, believing his mum when she said that his father was slain by the Ku Klux Klan when Bartholomew was a baby, ‘because the KKK hates Catholics as well as Negroes and Jews’. Fair enough; his mum is all he needs in his life; she is his guardian, his friend, and his haven from the cruelty and bullying he experienced all through school because of his size and inability to express himself. Though lonely for the feminine companionship that ‘normal’ men seem to come by so easily, Bartholomew is reasonably content with his life – indeed he expects nothing will ever change: escorting his mum to mass; the frequent visits of one of the parish priests, Father MacNamee, to their home for meals and religious advice; his daily visits to the local library, there to pretend to read the newspapers so that he can admire a shy volunteer librarian - until his mother dies of brain cancer.
Bartholomew is completely unmanned, and more shocks are in store: found in his mother’s underwear drawer while he is packing up her clothes is a letter – well, a ‘Free Tibet’ circular really, from Richard Gere. RICHARD GERE, THE MOVIE STAR! Why was Mum corresponding with Richard Gere in the last stages of her life? What can this mean? Could there be … A Cosmic Connection? (Bartholomew is a great believer in the Jungian theory of Synchronicity). To add to his grief and confusion, his trusted mentor Father MacNamee suddenly and publicly unfrocks himself in front of a gaping congregation – then moves in with Bartholomew, complete with a vast supply of whisky.
The only way that Bartholomew can cope with all these massive changes is to write to Richard Gere, believing that letters to someone his mother admired will help him make sense of his awkward, ignorant life: ‘People often find it hard to converse with me, which is why I don’t talk much to strangers and prefer writing letters in which there is room to record everything, unlike real life conversations where you have to fight and fight to fit in your words, and almost always lose.’
Matthew Quick leads the willing reader beautifully through Bartholomew’s subsequent adventures, recounted in meticulous detail by Bartholomew to Dear Mr Richard Gere as he meets various grief counsellors, tries to keep Father Bartholomew away from the bottle, (for the good ex-priest seems determined to drink himself to death), meets a foul-mouthed movie usher at grief counselling who is mourning the death of his cat – but turns out to be the brother of his heart’s delight, the shy volunteer librarian – and he finally, FINALLY gets to meet her, to have an actual conversation with her!
Bartholomew’s heart is full, and so is the reader’s as Mr Quick takes all his misfit characters on an unexpected trip to Canada, where much will be revealed, including the identity of Bartholomew’s long-lost father; where he will gain comfort in his sorrow from new friends and new unlikely situations; and an entirely new feeling of strength as he discovers how dependable he really is.
Mr Quick’s story has it all: laugh-out-loud humour; enormous empathy for people (and there are so many) who can’t conform to what we consider normal behaviour; brilliantly observed characters imbued with a zest for life that permeates every page, and that rare thing: the talent to make the reader wish the story would not end. Highly recommended.