Book review: Colson Whitehead's criminally good turn in Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead's Harlem Shuffle is centred on two heists sandwiching a revenge plot. PHOTOS: FLEET, MICHAEL LIONSTAR

Harlem Shuffle

By Colson Whitehead
Fiction/Fleet/Paperback/318 pages/$29.95/Available here
4 out of 5

Ray Carney is "only slightly bent" when it comes to "being crooked".

He is an upstanding business owner, a purveyor of decent furniture, a family man. Few know he is the son of an infamous hoodlum. And if his cousin Freddie drops off a radio or necklace of uncertain origin at his store from time to time, he asks no questions.

Whitehead has won two Pulitzer Prizes for The Underground Railroad (2016, available here) and The Nickel Boys (2019, available here), harrowing novels that delved into some of the darkest moments of African-American history.

Now, it seems he would like to kick up his heels a little, and this novel feels like the most fun he has had in years.

Harlem Shuffle, which shares the name of a 1963 R&B song, is a stylish, urbane take on hard-boiled crime fiction in the vein of American novelists Cornell Woolrich or W.R. Burnett, but set in the mid-century Harlem of New York City.

It is structured around three heists - or, rather, two heists sandwiching a revenge plot - and Whitehead delivers the goods with both the eloquence of an urban theorist and the relish of an old genre hand.

Carney's wife Elizabeth grew up on the affluent Striver's Row and his snooty in-laws look down on his poky apartment across from the subway tracks.

He dreams of a bigger home in a better class of neighbourhood for his growing family, though selling instalment-plan sofas is not likely to get him there with any speed.

Things go awry when Freddie, a man whose "common sense tended to fall out of a hole in his pocket", falls in with some dangerous characters.

He accidentally volunteers Carney as the fence for an audacious robbery of the Hotel Theresa, a beloved Harlem institution - "like taking a p*** on the Statue of Liberty", thinks Carney in horror.

If there is a weak part to this story, it is the bond between Carney and Freddie, upon which much of the plot hinges, but which never feels convincing enough to warrant the risks Carney takes for his cousin.

One is easily distracted from this, however, by the novel's colourful cast, like the heist's menacing mastermind, the purple-suited Miami Joe: "The only thing he dressed up nicely was himself; all else remained as naked and uncomplicated as God had created it."

The way Whitehead maps the chameleonic, changing networks of the city onto the psyche of his ambitious protagonist is nothing short of masterful.

"Urban blight" spreads from the deterioration of one building: "The sickness originated at Mam Lacey's and tendriled out." Carney wants a home on the river where he can put "the city behind him as if it didn't exist".

Carney, who spends the novel shuffling between his two selves - citizen and criminal, and all too often the twain shall meet - learns about dorveille, a mediaeval French concept of a period of midnight wakefulness.

Dorvay, as he prefers to spell it, is "crooked heaven, when the straight world slept and the bent got to work".

Through his knowledge of the secret knocks and back doors of Harlem, the reader gains access to an underworld of the urban African-American experience.

"The doorways were entrances into different cities - no, different entrances into one vast, secret city," he thinks. "Ever close, adjacent to all you know, just underneath. If you know where to look."

If you like this, read: Velvet Was The Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Quercus, 2021, $32.95, available here), a noirish tale set in 1970s Mexico City. Maite, an unfulfilled secretary, goes looking for her missing neighbour Leonora and is drawn into a complex web of student radicals and shadowy government agents. She crosses paths with Elvis, a reluctant criminal who loves old movies and rock 'n' roll.

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