Crook Manifesto, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead’s elegant and pulse-pounding sequel to his tour-de-force heist novel, Harlem Shuffle, may exceed the original.
After 15 years as a Harlem businessman, Ray Carney, son of a career criminal, has become a pillar of the Black community. A property owner and merchant, he’s expanded his landmark furniture store on 125th Street, and his family lives in a brownstone he bought on the famed Strivers’ Row. His illicit side hustle as a fence seems firmly in the rear view.
And yet, four years after the close of the previous novel, Ray is both prosperous and twitchy. Temptation stalks him, and when his daughter, May, begs him for sold-out Jackson 5 tickets, he jumps at the opportunity to reach out to his less savory contacts, trading favors with a dirty cop for VIP seats and the chance to be a hero to the hard to impress teenager.
Still, though Ray frames this reentry to fencing as “the things you do for your kids,” it’s obvious that part of him misses the excitement of life off the straight and narrow. “Crooked stays crooked” is a silent mantra, and Ray is constantly tempted. When the best he can claim is that “sometimes whole hours passed where he didn’t have a crooked thought,” it seems so easy to do something he’s good at—just fence some stolen goods, and everyone’s a winner, right?
Whitehead’s acerbic, stylized and rhythmic storytelling voice is stronger than ever, but it’s his precise evocation of a fraying 1970s New York City that really makes Ray’s story compelling. Crook Manifesto replicates its precursor’s episodic, three-part structure and unsurpassed blending of social history and crime fiction, starting in 1971 and continuing to 1973 and 1976. The historical touchstones are fascinating and relatively less-storied compared to the ’60s signposts of Harlem Shuffle. The year 1971 includes the New York Police Department corruption scandal starring whistleblower detective Frank Serpico (played memorably by Al Pacino in the movie Serpico), the Black Liberation Army breaking off from the Black Panthers and that historic Jackson 5 concert. In 1973, it’s Blaxploitation film and counterculture, and in 1976, the U.S. bicentennial is the political spark that may finally burn it all down.
These pieces of history are inextricable from the spectacularly evocative atmosphere. Through Ray’s eyes, we’re immersed in a city in the midst of a slow-moving crisis. Crime is surging, trash is piling up, and the wealthy are fleeing to the suburbs and skyscraper fortresses. Even the wealthy Upper East Side is looking a bit shabby. The city’s story alone would be worth the price of admission, but the characters are equally strong, especially Ray, a study in contradictions. Between the muggers and police rousting Black men on the streets in higher numbers than usual, it seems a precarious time to be getting mixed up with a crooked cop who’s gone to seed. It’s even worse to be walking around Manhattan with a hundred thousand’s worth in stolen jewels; and yet as well as Ray is doing, and as much as he has to lose, he quite convincingly can’t resist the siren call of danger.
With that knockout interplay between context and character, Crook Manifesto more than matches the finely hewn psychological tensions that haunted its (anti) hero in Harlem Shuffle. The combination makes this sequel soar.
Photo of Colson Whitehead by Chris Close.