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Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead review – a dazzling sequel to Harlem Shuffle | Colson Whitehead

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In his last novel, 2021’s Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead introduced us to Ray Carney, a vibrant creation of fierce contradictions. A family man and respectable businessman, he’s constantly drawn back into the nefarious legacy of his own father’s villainy. As a furniture salesman and occasional receiver of stolen goods, his dual occupations reflect these polarities. His legitimate enterprise is one of modish interiors and the promise of comfort; his crooked side hustle plays out in the harsh exterior and threat of the street. And he’s not just holding it together in his own being – he’s somehow making sense of the chaotic environment of 1960s New York. “He was a wall between the criminal world and the straight world,” it is stated early on, “necessary, bearing the load.”

This compelling juxtaposition intensifies as we move into the 1970s with Whitehead’s follow-up, Crook Manifesto. Carney has been going straight: “four years of honest and rewarding work in home furnishings”, as the period style moves from sedate mid-century modern into the mad extremes of that most garish of decades. The city beyond is spiralling into an apocalyptic decline, nearing bankruptcy with staggering levels of crime, corruption and political violence. But it’s a simple act of parental generosity that gets him into real trouble once more.

A quest for elusive Jackson 5 tickets for his teenage daughter May leads him to Munson, bent cop and fixer, an old associate from the earlier novel. Whitehead’s finely tuned sense of history puts his protagonist just at the wrong time and place in a greater narrative: the NYPD is in a shooting war with the Black Liberation Army (a more radical offshoot of the Black Panthers), while the Knapp Commission is investigating institutional police corruption. Munson is heavily implicated in the latter and, as a white cop in a black precinct, has for years been part of a vicious cycle of hellish logic. As the oppressive policing of an African American community by a white overclass disproportionately criminalises its occupants, it also allows for a greater level of corruption among its supposed law enforcers, so Harlem becomes the favoured borough for dirty cops on the take. “That’s why they called it the Gold Coast,” Munson muses wistfully as he attempts one final looting rampage, dragging Carney into his brutal endgame.

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Whitehead deploys a clipped and hard-boiled style that can pick up the pace at any moment, yet there’s a meditative, internalised element to his prose that puts us inside the action, allowing for reflection and candour among its participants. When the violence comes it is suitably shocking and abrupt, and grimly implosive rather than gratuitously spectacular. And there is much wry and eloquent humour providing a running social commentary and giving an angle on our protagonist’s predicaments. Observing the style of the Jackson 5, it’s remarked: “Carney’s upbringing was such that he couldn’t help but opine that flared trousers were well-suited for quick access to an ankle holster.”

The novel is divided into three sections, and we jump through the decade. Moving from 1971 to 1973, we find the furniture showroom used as a location for a blaxploitation movie, with much delight in period exuberance. The director, Zippo (a “hippie-ass Negro in snakeskin pants and megawatt yellow blouse”), has pyromaniacal tendencies and likens his obsession with firestarting to cinematography. Genuine heavy Pepper, who we also met in the previous novel, is hired as security for the film set and becomes something of a counterpoint to Ray Carney’s character: a professional criminal reluctantly drawn into the straight life. He’s bemused as a cartoonish facsimile of his world goes into production and bewildered by the mixed crew of grips, gaffers and continuity. “Frankly the racial‑harmony shit put Pepper on edge.” His confusion deepens when he’s called upon to trace the missing lead Lucinda Cole, erstwhile girlfriend of a Harlem gang boss. Art imitating life turns full circle and it’s Pepper’s street philosophy that provides the novel’s rubric: “A man has a hierarchy of crime, of what is morally acceptable, and what is not, a crook manifesto, and those who subscribe to lesser codes are cockroaches.” As the film wraps he’s left pondering: “What about his own continuity?”

And as the final section takes us to 1976, amid the empty pomp of the bicentennial celebrations, a truly ruthless crook manifesto emerges from the rotten power structures of a city in fiscal crisis. A spate of arson attacks point to insurance jobs and something more sinister: covert political policy. “If East Harlem and Brownsville burn up,” a lawyer explains starkly, “think how much money we can save on slum clearance before we redevelop it.” When the 11-year‑old son of a neighbour is hospitalised after a firebombing, Carney feels compelled to act, and the heat is on in his life again.

Two-time Pulitzer-winning author Whitehead shows no sign of resting on his laurels. Crook Manifesto continues the brilliantly realised sequence that began with Harlem Shuffle, intricately depicting cultural history and family drama with the compelling energy of a crime thriller and the sharp wit of social satire. Harlem itself is one of the lead characters, and there are echoes of other chroniclers of this burg such as James Baldwin and Chester Himes. In ambition and scope, in the way the intimate is so deftly weaved with the epic, one is also reminded of Balzac. Whitehead has embarked on a great comédie humaine of his own.

Crook Manifesto is published by Fleet (£20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


In his last novel, 2021’s Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead introduced us to Ray Carney, a vibrant creation of fierce contradictions. A family man and respectable businessman, he’s constantly drawn back into the nefarious legacy of his own father’s villainy. As a furniture salesman and occasional receiver of stolen goods, his dual occupations reflect these polarities. His legitimate enterprise is one of modish interiors and the promise of comfort; his crooked side hustle plays out in the harsh exterior and threat of the street. And he’s not just holding it together in his own being – he’s somehow making sense of the chaotic environment of 1960s New York. “He was a wall between the criminal world and the straight world,” it is stated early on, “necessary, bearing the load.”

This compelling juxtaposition intensifies as we move into the 1970s with Whitehead’s follow-up, Crook Manifesto. Carney has been going straight: “four years of honest and rewarding work in home furnishings”, as the period style moves from sedate mid-century modern into the mad extremes of that most garish of decades. The city beyond is spiralling into an apocalyptic decline, nearing bankruptcy with staggering levels of crime, corruption and political violence. But it’s a simple act of parental generosity that gets him into real trouble once more.

A quest for elusive Jackson 5 tickets for his teenage daughter May leads him to Munson, bent cop and fixer, an old associate from the earlier novel. Whitehead’s finely tuned sense of history puts his protagonist just at the wrong time and place in a greater narrative: the NYPD is in a shooting war with the Black Liberation Army (a more radical offshoot of the Black Panthers), while the Knapp Commission is investigating institutional police corruption. Munson is heavily implicated in the latter and, as a white cop in a black precinct, has for years been part of a vicious cycle of hellish logic. As the oppressive policing of an African American community by a white overclass disproportionately criminalises its occupants, it also allows for a greater level of corruption among its supposed law enforcers, so Harlem becomes the favoured borough for dirty cops on the take. “That’s why they called it the Gold Coast,” Munson muses wistfully as he attempts one final looting rampage, dragging Carney into his brutal endgame.

skip past newsletter promotion

Whitehead deploys a clipped and hard-boiled style that can pick up the pace at any moment, yet there’s a meditative, internalised element to his prose that puts us inside the action, allowing for reflection and candour among its participants. When the violence comes it is suitably shocking and abrupt, and grimly implosive rather than gratuitously spectacular. And there is much wry and eloquent humour providing a running social commentary and giving an angle on our protagonist’s predicaments. Observing the style of the Jackson 5, it’s remarked: “Carney’s upbringing was such that he couldn’t help but opine that flared trousers were well-suited for quick access to an ankle holster.”

The novel is divided into three sections, and we jump through the decade. Moving from 1971 to 1973, we find the furniture showroom used as a location for a blaxploitation movie, with much delight in period exuberance. The director, Zippo (a “hippie-ass Negro in snakeskin pants and megawatt yellow blouse”), has pyromaniacal tendencies and likens his obsession with firestarting to cinematography. Genuine heavy Pepper, who we also met in the previous novel, is hired as security for the film set and becomes something of a counterpoint to Ray Carney’s character: a professional criminal reluctantly drawn into the straight life. He’s bemused as a cartoonish facsimile of his world goes into production and bewildered by the mixed crew of grips, gaffers and continuity. “Frankly the racial‑harmony shit put Pepper on edge.” His confusion deepens when he’s called upon to trace the missing lead Lucinda Cole, erstwhile girlfriend of a Harlem gang boss. Art imitating life turns full circle and it’s Pepper’s street philosophy that provides the novel’s rubric: “A man has a hierarchy of crime, of what is morally acceptable, and what is not, a crook manifesto, and those who subscribe to lesser codes are cockroaches.” As the film wraps he’s left pondering: “What about his own continuity?”

And as the final section takes us to 1976, amid the empty pomp of the bicentennial celebrations, a truly ruthless crook manifesto emerges from the rotten power structures of a city in fiscal crisis. A spate of arson attacks point to insurance jobs and something more sinister: covert political policy. “If East Harlem and Brownsville burn up,” a lawyer explains starkly, “think how much money we can save on slum clearance before we redevelop it.” When the 11-year‑old son of a neighbour is hospitalised after a firebombing, Carney feels compelled to act, and the heat is on in his life again.

Two-time Pulitzer-winning author Whitehead shows no sign of resting on his laurels. Crook Manifesto continues the brilliantly realised sequence that began with Harlem Shuffle, intricately depicting cultural history and family drama with the compelling energy of a crime thriller and the sharp wit of social satire. Harlem itself is one of the lead characters, and there are echoes of other chroniclers of this burg such as James Baldwin and Chester Himes. In ambition and scope, in the way the intimate is so deftly weaved with the epic, one is also reminded of Balzac. Whitehead has embarked on a great comédie humaine of his own.

Crook Manifesto is published by Fleet (£20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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