alexandra alger


A Play on the Mirror Cliché

I read this in a recently published crime novel: “As he reached for his Visa, the security monitor next to the register caught Billy in all his glory: football burly but slump shouldered, his pale face with his exhaustion-starred eyes topped with only half a pitchfork’s worth of prematurely graying hair.” As you might’ve guessed, Billy’s a cop—more specifically an NYPD detective on the graveyard shift (his last name is actually Graves).

Here’s my theory. The author (prolific, successful) wanted to give us this image of Billy but wasn’t going to stoop to using the old he-looked-in-the-mirror technique. Besides, Billy doesn’t look in mirrors. That much is clear. So…a security screen! At the Korean deli where he buys the crap that’s supposed to keep him awake all night!

Pale face, exhausted eyes, gray, thinning hair (is that what “half a pitchfork’s worth” means?)— that deli has one high-resolution monitor! Maybe security systems have gotten more high tech lately. I try not to look at the screens myself—a) because I don’t want the person behind the register to think I’m vain enough to want to check myself out; and b) when I can’t resist glancing up—just a glance!—the picture is so grainy and dark I don’t automatically recognize myself. Does anyone look reasonably like themselves in security footage? If I could, I’d make this point to the author (whom I will identify shortly). I’d also have to add, isn’t it kinda cheesy? Is it any better than the mirror cliche? He could argue that Billy, whose coloring is gray and white and black, shows up perfectly. He could swear that in the delis he knows with security monitors, people look themselves, and anyway, security footage is as key to Billy’s life as iPhone pictures are to the rest of us. My only rebuttal would be that I could envision Billy perfectly without the security image.

The Whites, by Richard Price, writing under the pen name Harry Brandt; Henry Holt, 2015. It’s worth reading, if you like stories that go deep into the lives of NYPD detectives dealing with the ugliest crimes imaginable. A memorable array of cops and low-lifes and people struggling with circumstances they didn’t deserve.

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