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Crook Manifesto

Colson Whitehead 

Fleet (2023)

Review by Tim Finch


Alongside murder, the essential element of the traditional crime novel is a certain cosiness. However gruesome the violence, however malevolent the atmosphere, there is ultimately comfort in the genre. Its contract with the reader is that all will be well in the end. Jeopardy and terror will be kept within bounds. This is what makes such crime novels so enjoyable. 

In the Ray Carney crime capers, Colson Whitehead largely honours this tradition, although in this second volume of stories, with the action moving to the early to mid-1970s, New York City is darker and more messed-up. The city, and Harlem in particular, is crime-infested, drug-infested, and – a key theme – often literally ablaze. It is a hellish place in which everyone is corrupt or a crook, including Carney.

And yet, as established in the first volume, Harlem Shuffle (2021), and reaffirmed in Crook Manifesto, there are crooks and there are crooks – the amiable Carney, loving family man and furniture salesman (among other things), is one of the good ones.  As the bent, brutally violent, and – incidentally – white cop Munson puts it, after beating a pimp to a pulp, ‘Everybody’s bad, but some are worse.’  Even Munson is not among the very worst because, as promised, he gets the tickets for the Jackson Five concert that Carney wants for his daughter May. This twist is classic Whitehead. May takes her father’s hand as the Jacksons sing Never Can Say Goodbye, Carney briefly reflects on the death of Munson, after a night of violent mayhem in which our hero has reluctantly played his part. ‘It wasn’t hard to say goodbye,’ he concludes. Another gleefully murderous episode ends. Carney moves on, and so do we. 

In this case, to a story in which the main protagonist is not Carney but Pepper, a friend of his father, the late Big Mike Carney, and the go-to enforcer when ‘dark elements and dire business’ arise. Whitehead appears to be testing limits here, for if Carney has his legit side, a fundamental decency and humanity, Pepper certainly doesn’t. And yet such is Whitehead’s skill in manipulating our sympathy, we find ourselves viewing this sadistically violent thug in much the same way as the Carney children do, as ‘Uncle’ Pepper.

In its review of Harlem Shuffle, the Los Angeles Times asserted that the novel, while an undoubted page turner, was ‘of course, literary’. The same is true of Crook Manifesto.

When crime fiction wants to be taken more seriously, the resort is often to ponderous psychology. Happily, Whitehead spares us this. More surprisingly, the social and political elements of the Carney stories are quite lightly drawn. Racial injustice is, of course, a feature of Crook Manifesto, but we are a long way from the head-on collision with the issue in the two great Pulitzer-winning novels The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2019). What makes the Carney stories ‘literary’ is their bravura style, the adamantine brilliance of the prose. On every page there is a phrase that scintillates. 

For instance, describing the seedy Munson as ‘lumpy, like an army bag full of soiled laundry,’ or the aging gangland boss Chink Montague as looking like a ‘doped up lion in a shitty zoo.’ Or again, mixing the lyrical with the hardboiled and the political in a single sentence, ‘Sweet June nights like this, before summer crashed down, were rare in the city, like honest mayors or playgrounds free of nodding junkies and broken bottles.’  Never mind the plots that sometimes peter out, or the rather cartoonish characters; at the level of the sentence and of the word, this is writing of the highest order. 

Towards the end of Crook Manifesto, Carney finally seems to be running out of road. ‘You wriggle out of shit enough times, you start to believe you’re bullet proof, when you’re not,’ he thinks. ‘It comes around. It catches up.’ Quite how it catches up brings this hugely enjoyable book to a nicely realised conclusion, while leaving you hoping Carney will somehow rise from the ashes to strut his stuff again.