“Harlem Shuffle”: Colson Whitehead Shows His Versatility with a Complex Crime Thriller


Oliver Munday

Colson Whitehead’s first novel after winning two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction (in 2017 for “The Underground Railroad” and in 2020 for “The Nickel Boys”) is “Harlem Shuffle,” and readers familiar with his literary historical fiction may be surprised by what “Harlem Shuffle” is: part heist-thriller, part family drama taking place in Harlem from 1959 to 1964. The story of Ray Carney’s descent into the criminal underworld of Harlem is unlike any other of Whitehead’s novels and yet hearkens back to his earlier novels, each one of which usually fit into a different genre than the next. However, Whitehead has been able again to prove his literary talent; he has created not only a brilliantly-plotted crime novel but also a stunning character piece and an ode to a neighborhood much the same way “Ulysses” acts for Dublin or “Berlin Alexanderplatz” for its titular neighborhood.

The protagonist of “Harlem Shuffle” is Raymond “Ray” Carney, a furniture salesman who has been making his own way in Harlem. Having grown up with a father who was a crook, Ray tries to keep his life as squeaky clean as possible but still occasionally acts as a “fence” for criminals, buying stolen items off of them and selling them again for a profit. When his cousin Freddie gets tied up in a plan to rob the Hotel Theresa – Harlem’s Waldorf-Astoria – he ropes Carney into the plot, which gets him more involved with thieves and muscle than he wishes to after the robbery goes awry. Although the Theresa robbery becomes a profit for Carney, it pulls him deeper into the seedy underbelly of Harlem – he has to balance his life as an innocent furniture salesman, an independent Black man trying to fit into the society of the wealthy, and his newly-crooked life, which becomes more and more costly both financially and personally.

Whitehead’s skill with character writing is evident throughout the novel. Ray Carney is a character with complex motivations, a sense of right and wrong, but also an attraction to the crooked life which he tries to separate from his normal life, leading to an ability to subtly change personality while staying level-headed throughout his activities. As he struggles between his criminal identity and his businessman identity, he also struggles with his racial identity, especially when he compares himself to other people in his business or his family. The most important character besides Ray is his cousin Freddie, who depends on Ray after having gotten too deep into the criminal underworld of Harlem. The reader can sympathize with Freddie, his tragic persona, and his difficult life, but through Freddie the reader can also empathize with Ray further, understanding his struggle between helping his family and continuing his criminal life.

Many other minor characters stand out across the novel’s scope, from fellow crooks like the muscle Pepper and the safecracker Arthur; and fellow residents of the quiet side of Harlem. However, all of these characters, even Ray, serve to flesh out the setting-as-character of Harlem itself. Whitehead describes Harlem beautifully, with all of its shining aspects and even more of its dreary parts. He ties in history to this narrative – especially the Harlem Riots of 1964 which shape the tone and mood of the final act of the book, which becomes more dramatic and momentous than the previous events. The sights, sounds, and smells of the city are solidly created in Whitehead’s words, and the entire book acts as a vehicle to show his love for the neighborhood past and present.

“Harlem Shuffle” may present itself as a crime novel, and it very well is a crime novel, but it has many facets and layers which make it a unique and exciting novel on top of that. I will remember the plot for a long time, as well as many of the smaller characters, and Ray Carney especially will haunt me for a long time, but it is the version of Harlem that Whitehead presents which will stick with me the longest. This is a novel that will exemplify the neighborhood of Harlem for a long time.

5/5 stars