Monday, 1 March 2010

So anyways, like, er, you hearda this guy Richard Price?

In the seventies Richard Price was considered the poster boy for new, hip American writing. With his rapid -fire New Yoike dialogue Price was seen as the obvious heir to Hubert Selby Jr's crown as writer of New York's working classes . His first book, "The Wanderers" was a loud and youthful rap about teenage gang life in 1960's South Bronx. It exhibited for the first time his swift photographic eye, his pitch perfect ear for dialogue and his ability to drag you along by the scruff of the neck and show you the dark corners of a hectic city in a different light.

His next three books (Bloodbrothers, Ladies' man, The Breaks) again all drew on aspects of his own life but never really lived up to the street-fast prose and the one- inch -literary punch of "The Wanderers".

So he changed tack.

He started to write screenplays. Even though it wasn't his best work he brought the quick tongue of the chancer and the cynicism of the duped to Scorsese's - "The Colour of Money" and Pacino's " Sea of Love". It seems that the exercise worked and he came back with the novel "Clockers" a story about lower level drug pushers in North Jersey. The style was filmy - quick , in and out , no-messing and showed everyone (as well as, one suspects, Price himself ) that he was back on form. The book was filmed by Spike Lee and it set Price off in a new direction- crime. But as with all great writers his crime books aren't just about the vile act, they are about the people involved in it. "Samaritan" and "Lush Life" (possibly his masterpiece), both set in his beloved New York, show how communities or a big city can alter a person for good or for bad. The words Zola and Naturalism have been banded around and it is justified. But one could also draw parallels to Dickens and Saul Bellow in they way he uses a city as a character and Dostoevsky for his psychological insight . Crime is but the mirror to reflect the society that his characters are altered by. Price's influence has most recently been seen on TV in "The Wire" where cop talk, street talk, morally compromised policemen and sympathetic criminals abound. David Simon was such a fan he asked Price to write a few episodes.

Price has certainly influenced my idea of what crime fiction is and how a crime can be used as a powerful literary device . His books reveal how people in jeopardy can be easily seduced by a life of crime and how quickly it can change a person for the worst. More importantly he shows us how close that criminal world is to all our lives.

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