CriminOlly thinks: Convincing and deftly handled tale of crime and racial injustice in 1960s New York. 4/5
Title: Harlem Shuffle | Author: Colson Whitehead | Publisher: Doubleday | Pages: 336 | Publication date: 14th September 2021 | Source: Publisher | Content warnings: Yes | Tolerance warning: No
Like Colson Whitehead’s excellent ‘The Nickel Boys’, ‘Harlem Shuffle’ is a crime novel infused with rich commentary on racism in the United States. It’s not quite as good as the earlier book, but it still has a lot to recommend it.
Split into 3 distinct acts, the book follows the life of Ray Carney, an outwardly respectable New York furniture salesman who has a sideline in dealing in stolen goods. Ray’s cousin Freddie is even more deeply involved with local criminals, and gradually drags Ray down with him.
This is the best kind of book, one that mixes a compelling story with convincing characters and beating heart. Its power comes from the fact that Ray is a completely believable protagonist. His subtle mix of hardworking honesty and criminality makes perfect sense once you get to know him as a character, despite the apparent contradiction. The three way tension between doing the right thing for his cousin, doing the right thing for his wife and children and making easy money is both convincing and a useful plot device. The second act of the book, which revolves around the concept of Ray waking in the middle of the night to work on the books relating to his activities as a fence, handles this particularly well.
The story is set against the vivid backdrop of black New York in the 1960s. The detail is rich but never overwhelms the story and the blend of every day life and the fight for racial justice is brilliantly done. The civil rights movement is part of the lives of the characters, but only part – they still have to work and eat. Riots in Harlem play a big part later on in the book, but as something that is happening around the characters rather than an event they are actively involved in. Whitehead’s skill as a writer is in making the reader reflect on injustice without laying it on too thickly. His stories are about people first and foremost, which makes them all the more impactful.
To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.
Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time.
Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesn’t ask
Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa — the “Waldorf of Harlem” — and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers,
and other assorted Harlem lowlifes.
Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?
Content Warning: Racism
Tolerance Warning: All good