Review: Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead
I have no idea how I'm going to narrow down my favourite of 2021 list, really I don't - there were 19 books on there in contention already and then I went and read Harlem Shuffle, and now there are 20. I was already thinking I'd have to expand my list from 10 to 20 and now I just do not know what to do.
Anyway - this is I think an absolutely stone-cold classic modern entry in the field of genre fiction of 'noir mystery', which is a subset of thriller mysteries that usually take place in the 50s and 60s and feature a central cast of crooked, but loveable, criminals who follow their own internalised code of honour rather than the legal system in the society that they are marginally operating in. This novel is also a bit of a love story to Harlem in the mid-twentieth century, before it got gentrified to fuck (as most of Manhattan and Brooklyn did, to be quite honest), and it's all set against the riot that breaks out in Harlem in 1964 in protest of an off-duty white police officer killing a black teenager. This book is a lot of things - a thriller, a heist caper, and also a sociopolitical critique on how far we still have to go for racial justice and equity that makes its points in the story without ever breaking the fourth wall, which makes it way more powerful (I think, at least).
Everything about this book works so well - the pacing, the split of the narrative into three discrete time periods, the way each part has its own central tension and climax and resolution as well as everything coming together in a complex, nuanced, ambiguous ending at the last (although, would the ending have been a teeny bit better if it had stretched out longer than five pages? Discuss!).
I also think Carney was an excellent central narrator, and a really good cipher for the other characters in the novel. We get just enough of his biases and opinions to know that the views we are getting of the cast of crooks he runs with, and most importantly his view of his cousin Freddie (who is Carney's main foil, despite the fact that his importance to the novel is all about his importance to Carney's characterization rather than the plot - a little authorial interjection I absolutely loved, because it added an introspective, literary quality to what otherwise would have been just a straight-up heist thriller) that we know we're getting a perhaps unreliably shaded narration, but we still get enough of the plot that we can also make up our own minds on both Carney and the other characters.
Basically, this was just a really excellent, really well-crafted novel. As I was reading it I could pick up on how good of a writer Colson Whitehead is, and how much work he's put into the structure and the craft of this amazing book; but my awe at his authorial gifts never took me out of what was a fun, gripping, interesting, and politically conscious story this was. It's one of the better examples I've read this year, or maybe ever, of an author fully in control and knowing how good he is and managing to show it off without ruining the story he's telling (something that male authors, generally, struggle with. You can write a book showing off your skills without being self-important, you know. Everyone take notes from Colson Whitehead, please!).
I just highly, highly recommend - it's the perfect blend of escapism within a political reality that still needs confronting head-on, and it's just such a fun heist story! Please read this book!