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Originally published Friday, March 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Class, crime and a crash course on cops in "Lush Life"

Richard Price's "Lush Life" confronts some serious issues — and it's seriously entertaining. Its got class, crime and a crash course on cops.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Richard Price will read from "Lush Life" at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle; free (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com). He will discuss it and other aspects of his work at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Henry Art Gallery, 4100 15th Ave. N.E., Seattle; free,

but advance registration

is required by e-mailing rsvp@thewarrenreport.com (sponsored by University Bookstore: 206-634-3400, www.ubookstore.com). Price's talk will be preceded at

12:30 p.m. by a viewing of the film of his novel "Clockers."

"Lush Life"

by Richard Price

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

455 pp., $26

Manhattan's Lower East Side is, as real-estate types delicately say, a neighborhood in transition. Hip restaurants, yuppies and roving teams of "Quality of Life" cops are steadily displacing its once-dominant criminals, druggies and sad housing projects.

These very different cultures, high and low, old and new, still exist side by side — but, for all their proximity, they're still worlds apart. And when they collide, the results can be shattering.

Novelist Richard Price uses this setting for his astonishing new novel, "Lush Life." The book, his first since 2003's "Samaritan," jettisons fictional Dempsy, N.J., the setting of several previous Price books, for a very real Manhattan.

Price himself is a die-hard New Yorker. A self-described "middle-class Jewish kid," he grew up in the projects of the Bronx and first came to fame in his 20s as a virtuoso writer of brash, brainy urban tales like "The Wanderers" and "Ladies' Man."

His palette has gotten richer and deeper with later books, in particular the brilliant "Clockers" and "Freedomland." Meanwhile, he's become a prolific writer of screenplays for film ("Ransom," "The Color of Money," "Sea of Love") and for HBO's "The Wire." He's still brash and brainy, but now he's clear-eyed and emotionally fluent too — older and wiser. And, as always, he's very funny.

As with previous books, Price lights the fuse of "Lush Life" with a single, impulsive act of violence.

After a night of clubbing, a brash young man is robbed at gunpoint and, after a moment of bravado, is shot dead. The story follows the crime's aftermath as a police detective, Matty Clark, circles the case. Clark is wary and weary, but a good cop:

"Although a few pure athletes of evil did exist out there, most murderers, when [Clark] finally caught up to them, pretty much never met his expectations. For the most part, they were a stupid and fantastically self-centered lot; rarely did they come across, at least on first impression, as capable of the biblical enormity of what they had done."

At first, Clark focuses on one of the dead man's companions that night: Eric Cash, a 30-something who vaguely yearns to be artistic. But we know — and Clark soon realizes — that Cash wasn't the shooter.

Meanwhile, Price traces the course of the real gunman — and of the media machine, as it follows a juicy story with racial overtones (a murdered white kid in a racially charged neighborhood).

"Lush Life" is, in part, a police procedural. But Price isn't a genre writer, simply a shrewd novelist who loves the pleasures of building his work around some of the conventions of popular literature. In a recent interview on the Web site Bookslut.com, he said, "I've discovered that if I follow the course of an investigation, it's a very convenient horse to ride because the natural progression of an investigation will take you into all the worlds you want to touch in a very organized way. I don't even care who did it. It's an excuse to get into the world."

Price's strengths are clear: the swift movement between high and low social strata, the characters who ring dead true, the empathy toward people who must react to sudden life-changing events.

Another strength is Price's research, and I don't mean in books. He clearly puts in his time hanging with the police (and, sometimes, their adversaries). But his prose wears this learning lightly; it's never forced or overdone.

In fact, it's clear and unfussy, with a delight in the vernacular. (He has evidently taken to heart Elmore Leonard's dictum, "If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.") In particular, Price has a black belt in dialogue, with a Ph.D. in capturing the deadpan humor that helps cops stay sane. "Lush Life" is a serious book, with serious points to make, but it's also a wicked pleasure to read.

Adam Woog reviews crime fiction

on the second Sunday of each month

for The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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