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Book review: Colson Whitehead steals the show in slick crime novel Crook Manifesto

Crook Manifesto

By Colson WhiteheadFiction/Fleet/Paperback/321 pages/$23/Amazon SG (amzn.to/3P54gwT)4 out of 5

Parents who went to unthinkable lengths to secure American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift’s Eras concert tickets for their offspring will sympathise with Ray Carney.

It is 1971, the start of the disco decade in dizzying, decaying New York City, and Carney is retired from his double life as a fence for stolen goods.

Now, he maintains a singular existence as a furniture store owner, a family man and an upstanding pillar of the African-American community.

But when his teenage daughter May clamours to go to a Jackson 5 concert, Carney is forced to hit up his old criminal contacts for those coveted tickets – and, in so doing, is drawn back into the city’s gritty underworld.

Carney first appeared in Harlem Shuffle (2021), the heist high jinks with which American writer Colson Whitehead followed the harrowing historical novels – The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2019) – that won him two Pulitzer Prizes.

Like Harlem Shuffle, Crook Manifesto has a three-caper structure, with each leading the reader through another skein of New York’s underbelly.

In the first, the promise of Jackson 5 tickets lures Carney into joining Munson, a crooked white cop, on a hellish escapade involving police corruption and the Black Liberation Army militant organisation.

The second reintroduces Pepper, another Harlem Shuffle veteran. An ageing philosopher of a hitman who once worked with Carney’s criminal father Big Mike, Pepper now finds himself doing security on a blaxploitation film, Code Name: Nefertiti.

When its star Lucinda Cole vanishes overnight, Pepper is tasked by the director to track her down.

It is a fun if meandering excursion with plenty of digressions, such as a flashback to one of Pepper’s more unorthodox jobs: stealing a secret recipe for fried chicken.

In the third act, Carney hires Pepper to investigate a streak of fires across town after one puts his tenant’s 11-year-old son in a coma.

Carney suspects arson, commissioned by shady landlords to burn down slum buildings for insurance payouts – part of a grand scheme for “urban renewal”.

Crook Manifesto reprises the urbane wit and colour of Harlem Shuffle.

Take, for instance, this delightful portrait of summer in New York: “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.”

In the same chapter, a band is described as easing into a “tranquilised version” of the Billy Strayhorn jazz standard Take The “A” Train that was more like “Take The ‘A’ Train When A Trash Fire Has Disrupted Service Up And Down The Line”.

Where Crook Manifesto outdoes its predecessor is in its depiction of the relationship between crime and the city.

Whitehead’s deft genre stylings are underpinned by a grasp of urbanism that is one of the finest of anyone working in crime fiction today.

The understanding that urban crime is fundamentally spatial in nature, already subtly illustrated in Harlem Shuffle, comes into full force here.

Again, it maps the crooked city that lies hidden within the straight and narrow, with its secret passages through which goods and people are pushed from the light into the dark, then back again in an endless churn.

This time, however, it pulls back to show a greater scope – the shifting tides of urban decline and renewal, race wars and class struggle, the coruscating connections between city churn, capitalism and corruption.

“There are always secret rackets underway that you know nothing about, even as they run your life,” muses Carney.

What the novel sets about doing is to make these invisible rackets visible, and for Carney to work out his own place in them.

There are three acts to each novel, and there will be three novels in Whitehead’s Harlem trilogy. You can already see him building up to something epic. This reviewer cannot wait to see him pull it off.

If you like this, read: A Burglar’s Guide To The City by Geoff Manaugh (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016, $22, Amazon SG, go to amzn.to/484dx0E), a look at burglary through the lens of urban architecture, from 19th-century heist mastermind George Leonidas Leslie, who used his training as an architect to rob banks across America; to the concept of “Nakatomi space”, named for the building featured in the film Die Hard (1988), a fluid space traversed by all manner of non-architectural means.

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