Colson Whitehead: Harlem Shuffle
Whitehead has a substantial and well-deserved reputation as a writer tackling serious issues – specifically America’s racist past / present: witness two of his previous novels The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2020) both of which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Harlem Shuffle is a novel in a different key – it is still superbly written, with all the necessary facets you come to expect of a “good” novel – one he has appears just to have written for kicks.
Essentially it is a heist-gone-wrong story set in the Harlem of the late-1950s to mid-1960s: think Chester Himes with polish (not that there is anything wrong unpolished Chester Himes).
Ray Carney, son of a well-known criminal, is living a more or less “straight” life with his wife and kid, another on the way, running a furniture store with a good reputation among the black community. He occasionally fences stolen goods, mainly at the behest of his cousin, Freddie. A mercurial presence, whose arrival more often than not, heralds trouble for Carney. Freddie masterminds the heist of a hotel in town, which he persuades Carney to take part in and which goes wrong. This brings a more serious league of criminal to Carney’s door, not to mention the police.
Told in three parts, over three years: 1959, 1961, the book culminates in the Harlem Riots of 1964. There is a cast of sharps, mobsters and other characters you might expect from that scene / that era, the white cops who are racist and on the take, the Jewish jeweller and so on, each of whom is dextrously sketched. The dialogue is whip-smart. The story races along.
Put simply, an excellent, entertaining read.