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Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead

31/07/2023
Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead

In Crook Manifesto, multi award winning author Colson Whitehead returns to the Harlem of Ray Carney for some continuing adventures in crime in his follow up to 2021’s Harlem Shuffle. Similar in structure to the first book, Crook Manifesto comprises three long short stories, each some time on from the last. Through these stories Whitehead once again lovingly illuminates the world and underworld of Harlem, this time moving from the 1960s well into the 1970s.

When the first story, Ringolevio opens it is 1971 and Ray Carney, son of a gangster and former fence, has been on the straight and narrow for four years. But a desire to secure Jackson 5 tickets for his daughter sees Ray looking up an old nemesis, corrupt cop Munson, being asked to do one quick job and, as a result, quickly being disastrously dragged back into the criminal underworld. The second story Nefertiti T.N.T., set in 1973, while still fairly violent, stands as the light relief. Carney is more of a walk on role in the story of his father’s old enforcer Pepper trying to locate the missing lead actress in a Blacksploitation film. The final story, The Finishers takes place in America’s bicentennial year 1976 and takes Carney and Pepper to darker places, including the world of institutionalised corruption, as they try to find out who is responsible for a series of fires in Harlem. The three stories stand on their own but also speak to each other and previous stories in this series. Events from Harlem Shuffle continue to resonate and everything that happens has consequences down the line.

As with Harlem Shuffle, these are not just stories about Ray Carney. They are packed to the brim with history, side stories and an array of colourful characters. Such as Pepper whose personality is described as:

…December when the days for shorter and shorter: cold and relentless. Inevitable… Pepper was an emissary from the ugly side of things, to remind you how close it was.

And full of scenes (and sometimes sentences) that run the gamut from violence and despair to joy. No more epitomised than the opening of the third story:

It was a glorious June morning. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the ambulances were screaming, and the daylight falling on last night’s crime scenes made the blood twinkle like dew in a green heaven.

Crook Manifesto is another great novel from one of the great observers of American life, and in particular of conveying the experience of Black America. With a great economy and plenty of verve Whitehead  brings the streets of 1970s Harlem, its denizens, its enforcers, its dreamers and its grandees once again to vivid life. It will be interesting to see how he brings Carney’s story home and charts more changes to the city in the final, 1980s-set volume of this trilogy.

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Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead

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Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead

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