In his books and in numerous screenplays like “Ransom,“ “Sea of Love“ and “The Color of Money,“ Prices calling card has become a meld of social conflict, taut mystery, razor-sharp dialogue, vividly drawn characters, and an attention to detail that has earned him a reputation as one of the best chroniclers of big city experience.
It is no surprise that all of those elements are here again, in one big, gripping, suspenseful, and challenging work. It is also not surprising that peers like Stephen King describe “Samaritan“ as “absolutely riveting“ and a master such as Elmore Leonard to opine ecstatically, using terms that range from “beautiful“ and “a gem“ to “terrific.“ Even the Wall Street Journal has weighed in with the assessment that “It all makes for an extraordinary novel, with the gritty plot of a hard-edged thriller and the cosmic concerns of a streetcorner Dostoyevsky.“
The protagonist in “Samaritan,“ is Ray Mitchell, a former high school teacher whose more recent and highly lucrative career as a TV writer has just come to an abrupt end, sending him back to his birthplace of Dempsey in an effort to rethink his life. Also on the agenda are reconnecting with Ruby, his teenage daughter, taking a stab at teaching again, and becoming a mentor to a former student who just got out of jail.
In the following two excerpts from the books prologue, “Out of Time: Ray - January 10,“ and then from the first chapter, respectively, we meet Ray as he orients himself to life back in Dempsey, at home and at his new place of employment:
“Ray Mitchell, white, forty-three, and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Ruby, sat perched on the top slat of a playground bench in the heart of the Hopewell Houses, a twenty-four-tower low-income housing project in the city of Dempsy, New Jersey.
It was just after sundown: a clear winter‘s night, the sky still holding on to that last tinge of electric blue. Directly above their heads, sneaker-fruit and snagged plastic bags dangled from bare tree limbs; above that, an encircling ring of fourteen-story buildings; hundreds of aluminum-framed eyes twitching TV-light silver, and above all, the stars, faintly panting, like dogs at rest.
They were alone, but Ray wasn‘t too concerned about it -- he had grown up in these houses; eighteen years ending in college, and naive or not he just couldn‘t quite regard Hopewell as an alien nation. Besides, a foot and a half of snow had fallen in the last two days and that kind of drama tended to put a hush on things, herd most of the worrisome stuff indoors. Not that it was even all that cold-they were reasonably comfortable sitting there under the yellow glow of sodium lights, looking out over the pristine crust under which, half-buried, were geodesic monkey bars, two concrete crawl-through barrels and three cement seals, only their snouts and eyes visible above the snow line, as if they were truly at sea.
Two Hispanic teenaged girls cocooned inside puffy coats and speaking through their scarves walked past the playground, talking to each other about various boys‘ hair. Ray attempted to catch his daughter‘s eye to see if she had overheard any of that but Ruby, embarrassed about being here, about not belonging here, studied her boots...
“Dad?“ Ruby said in a soft high voice. “When you were a child, did Grandma and Grandpa like living here?“
“When I was a child?“ Ray touched by her formality. “I guess. I mean, here was here, you know what I‘m saying? People lived where they lived. At least, back then they did.“
And from Chapter 1: Ray - January 4: “Entering Paulus Hook High School for only the second time since graduation twenty-five years earlier, Ray approached the security desk, a rickety card table set up beneath a blue-and-gold Christmas/Kwanza/Hanukkah banner, which still hung from the ceiling in the darkly varnished lobby four days into the New Year. The uniformed guard standing behind the sign-in book was a grandmotherly black woman: short, bespectacled, wearing an odd homemade uniform of fuzzy knit watch cap, gray slacks and a commando sweater, a khaki ribbed pullover with a saddle-shaped leather patch straddling the left shoulder.
“You got a visitor‘s pass?“ she asked Ray as he hunched over the sign-in sheet.
“Me? I‘m here to guest-teach a class.“
“They give you a teacher‘s ID?“
“A what?“ Then, “No...“
Straightening up, he was struck with a humid waft of boiled hot dogs and some kind of furry bean-based soup that threw him right back into tenth grade.
“Today‘s my first day.“
Ray is just beginning to settle into this new phase of his life when disaster strikes, and he is brutally beaten and left to die of a crushed skull in his own apartment. He knows who the attacker was, but wont say or press charges, even though Nerese Ammons, a childhood friend who grew up to be a detective, keeps the pressure on him as he slips in and out of consciousness in ICU. As she furthers her investigation, she learns that there are a number of possible perpetrators with a motive to want to see Ray hurt, But even more frightening is that the victim himself seems more afraid of the truth than he does his own death.
Price skillfully weaves together the storylines attached to Rays past and his recovery with Nereses investigation, and its a testament to his considerable skills as a storyteller that even though all the clues are there, readers will be guessing the identity of the assailant right up until the end. And when that denouement is reached, the walloping punch it delivers has the impact it does not because of the identity that is revealed, but the superb way that Price dissects the motive, all of which is closely linked to some powerful assessments about human behavior, the nature of giving and forgiveness, and how easy it is to mistakenly believe we are doing someone a favor, when the opposite is, in fact, true. Price is a first-rate writer who seems to be at the height of his game, and “Samaritan“ is not only good, it aspires to greatness and achieves it. Even if we have to wait another four years for his next work, it will be worth it.