Brenda Martin, a 32-year-old white single mother, dazed and bruised, staggers into an inner-city hospital in northern New Jersey. She tells police a black man stole her car with her five- year-old son, Cody, in the backseat. Roughed up by her unidentifiable black assailant, Brenda is placed in the alternating hands of Lorenzo (Big Daddy) Council and Jesse Haus—tough-talking but compassionate detective and at-once predatory and concerned newspaperwoman, respectively. Brenda’s story, clearly bogus to principals and readers alike, nevertheless leads to a crackdown against the black community of Dempsy, NJ, converting it into a prison. Residents, led by an Al Sharpton sound-alike, complain futilely that such repressive treatment would never have occurred if the missing child had been black.

The novel is a triangle, with Lorenzo and Jesse occupying the legs and Brenda the base. The enforcement side, gentled by Lorenzo, and the tabloid side, leavened by the hack female “runner,” become symbiotic caretakers in a futile attempt to save Brenda from herself and the lie that has been coaxed out of her.

The majority of chapters in this work should have been pruned. However, the final four chapters cover the novel’s culminating events with unexpected concision: Cody’s wake, Brenda’s arraignment, a protest march in which an African American is killed, Brenda’s fateful ending. Richard Price’s ear for street dialogue and his eye for telling...

(The entire section is 514 words.)