“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” suggests Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray. “Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.” Once the desire is realized, you no longer crave it.

The yearning to reembrace a criminal life runs like a fault line through Ray Carney, the canny, resourceful protagonist of Colson Whitehead’s series of New York crime novels, which began with Harlem Shuffle (2021) and now continues with Crook Manifesto. It’s the early 1970s, and Carney, a Harlem furniture store owner and former part-time fence of jewelry and myriad stolen goods, seems to have gone legit. He’s increasingly seen, and sees himself, as an aspirational African American businessman. He has a poised though tetchy wife, Elizabeth, and two kids, May and John, and the family’s elevated status is reflected in their recent move to a town house in the “dignified oasis” of Harlem’s Strivers’ Row.

A decade earlier Carney’s marriage to Elizabeth had vexed her snobbish, solidly middle-class parents. They considered their son-in-law a “street nigger” who had lucked out in his relationship with their daughter. He had little chance, though, of ever passing the brown-paper-bag test (with its premium placed on fair skin) that would afford him entry to their social circles, in particular to Harlem’s elite, private Dumas Club, named after the French novelist, who had black African ancestry but passed for white.

In the years between the end of Harlem Shuffle and the beginning of Crook Manifesto, Elizabeth’s parents suffered a blow to their fortunes, which forced them to leave their beloved Strivers’ Row. The world has been reordered in Carney’s favor, and it seems that he has stolen not just their daughter but their fashionable historic neighborhood, too.

The fight over real estate—how it leverages power, enables or disables the “churn” of social advancement—is a central theme of Crook Manifesto. If you’re an African American in 1971, do you have to settle for accommodation in Brooklyn’s or Harlem’s neglected, rat-infested tenements? Must you accept the hand that life has dealt you, or can you, with a little bit of chutzpah and luck, come out on top?

One of the strategies that animated Carney in Harlem Shuffle was the notion—familiar to many New Yorkers—that if he could just scrape together the money to buy a better apartment in a more attractive neighborhood, escaping the screech of metal from the elevated trains, then his entire life would be transformed. Now in his forties, he has finally entered that stage when a black man starts championing “Black Firsts and neglected visionaries of their race.” Who knows: one day he might be numbered among them as the first successful black furniture store owner on 125th Street.

The son of Big Mike Carney has defied expectations in taking a detour from the felonious path relentlessly pursued by his father before he was shot to death by police. But who says crime doesn’t pay? It did for Ray. When Big Mike checked out of this world, his son discovered a healthy bundle of his father’s ill-gotten gains: $30,000 stashed in a spare tire, an unexpected inheritance that he prudently used as a down payment on his future furniture business.

Since then, Carney has thrived. He has expanded his store on 125th and Morningside and become a fixture in the Harlem community. He’s a prideful connoisseur (check out the business diploma that adorns his office wall) who takes vicarious pleasure in imagining his clients luxuriating in the high-end products, such as Collins-Hathaway armchairs, that fill his store. Whitehead approaches the portrayal of the hinterland of 1970s Harlem with the same attention to detail of set designers and prop hunters faithfully conjuring 1950s Connecticut in Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven.

The look and the language of the era are critical to Crook Manifesto’s cultural specificity. They also underscore Carney’s fastidiousness. In the second section of the book, when he allows a blaxploitation movie to be shot in his store, he winces when one of the crew members makes minor adjustments to the merchandise, and he laments the “mentality that sets a Sterling ottoman next to an Egon club chair.” Such moments speak to Whitehead’s conviction that this literary fiction only masquerades as a crime novel. While he is faithful to the conventions and contours of crime writing, the capers are secondary to the thrill of his character portraits, informed by his research in archives. “I would borrow the language of newspaper reports and also the language of the furniture ads,” Whitehead has said, “because to present Carney as a real salesman, finding the language of furniture’s tapered legs, Jet Age angles and ‘champagne finish’ was as fruitful as finding the gangster slang.”


Whitehead’s hoodlums, with names like Chink Montague, Miami Joe, and Notch Walker, sound as if they could have stepped from the pages of Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls, but they are charmless, hard-drinking murderers who resemble “rye-soaked cockroaches scurrying from sunlight and propriety.” They have adopted the practices of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, a thief, pimp, and killer who was king of the 1930s and 1940s Harlem underworld. According to his wife, Mayme, as recorded in Harlem Godfather (2008), Johnson was “a criminal with a social conscience…who took from the people, but at least gave something back.” A questionable claim, perhaps, but one that would never be made of Whitehead’s gangsters, who plow a one-way street of plunder.

Crook Manifesto is also a portrait of New York defined by emblems of permanence and uncertainty: on one hand, the schist bedrock that provides the foundations upon which the city’s towering skyscrapers are built; on the other, the unsettling sirens that “zipped up and down the aves as regularly as subway trains,” creating a cacophony of never-ending mayhem. And you can’t write about 1970s Harlem without a consideration of race. New York is in some regards a segregated city, and one acknowledgment of that fact comes when a white criminal associate commends Carney for catering to Harlem’s “underserved community”: African American thieves would have trouble finding a white fence downtown to move their stolen goods.

Whitehead has constructed Crook Manifesto to prefigure what is yet to come as well as to echo what has already happened to Carney in his perilous navigation of race, class, and crime. Not satisfied with merely tending shop, the furniture man now rents out apartments, acting as a conscientious landlord for a handful of grateful tenants in the building, including Mrs. Ruiz, her daughters, and her son, Albert. Carney is on the up-and-up: yes, sirree. Gone are the days when Big Mike’s son “was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.” Yet the central jeopardy that drives this reflective novel is whether the reformed rogue can stay the course of middle-class respectability or will be lured back to the familiar, risky, and thrilling rewards of illegal enterprise.

His environment doesn’t help. New York City is “vast, complicated, and crooked.” As Carney learned a decade earlier from a corrupt cop called Munson, its machinations are oiled by protection money, favors, and bribes (“the circulation of envelopes”). Though Carney has been out of the game for four years, his resolve is tested regularly. “Carney was retired,” notes the narrator, “and sometimes whole hours passed where he didn’t have a crooked thought.” A crook is only out of the game, inevitably, until he’s not. After all, “crooked stays crooked and bent hates straight.”

The catalyst for Carney’s return to criminality seems whimsical: the need to source near-impossible-to-obtain tickets for his daughter to see the Jackson 5 when their tour brings them to New York City. Maybe Carney, who until recently has been obliged to pay a weekly tribute to Munson, can call in a favor?

As a keen student of human behavior, Carney understands the need to ask himself one question when making an important decision: Do the credits outweigh the deficits? Of course he regrets some of his previous wrong turns, but he mostly gets the big judgment calls about right. When Carney lifts the receiver and dials the local police station to ask a favor of the crooked detective with whom he has previously had the displeasure of working, he must know it comes with considerable risk. But maybe that’s the point: the jeopardy is the juice.

Munson has not aged well since Carney’s last encounter with him. He is “lumpy, like an army bag full of soiled laundry that had sprouted legs.” Whitehead excels in his portrayal of an amoral cop who “emerged one day like a wart, self-generating,” and who, it transpires, has an urgent agenda of his own.

The quid pro quo goes something like this: Munson will guarantee May’s gratitude and affection for her father by securing tickets for the concert at Madison Square Garden. All Carney has to do is offload some hot jewels, valued at $200,000, that have come into Munson’s possession. Nice and easy. There is, though, one complication: the jewels have been stolen by the Black Liberation Army, the underground offshoot of the Black Panthers.

Whitehead set the final section of Harlem Shuffle in the midst of a real 1964 race riot, which provided distracting cover for the escapades of the hoodlums who populate that book. In Crook Manifesto, he initially locates the drama in another historical event: the fevered hunt, with every cop in the five boroughs scouring the city, for murderous members of the Black Liberation Army. On May 21, 1971, the BLA ambushed two policemen, Joseph A. Piagentini and Waverly M. Jones, outside a housing project in Harlem and shot and killed them. The killers were later arrested, convicted, and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.


Whitehead has spoken of not wanting to exploit the tragedy of events from the time in which his historical crime novels are set. The focus is not on the murder of the policemen; rather, he elaborates the personal stories of his characters. Whitehead constructs a Venn diagram of competing agents of violence who mostly turn on one another: BLA militants, Harlem mobsters, and renegade policemen.

It turns out that Munson and his partner, Buck Webb, “an old-school Harlem cop, bull-necked and burly,” have robbed the BLA robbers. But the cops’ glee about their life-changing score soon gives way to dread. The word on the street is that they have a bounty on their heads, courtesy not just of the BLA but also of the BLA’s associates: the sluggers who answer to Harlem’s kingpin, Notch Walker. Not surprisingly, Detective Munson has the harrowed look of a man “running from something that was gaining on him.”

Munson also needs to cash out before he’s hauled before the Knapp Commission, an internal investigation of police corruption prompted by the testimony of a whistleblowing patrolman, Frank Serpico. Whitehead maintains a delicate balance in introducing real-life characters like Serpico and events like the murder of the two policemen, not blurring the line between fiction and fact but rather grounding his story in historical reality.

There’s a saying about the usual trajectory in the career of police like Munson: “Detectives are poor in their twenties, rich in their thirties, and in jail in their forties.” Munson is determined to avoid that fate. With the investigators and hoodlums closing in, his only option is to get out of town, maybe even out of the country, and for that he needs money, lots of it.

Munson holds fast to the philosophy that “everybody’s bad, but some are worse.” Does he count among them? You could try asking his partner of ten years, but there’d be little point, as Webb’s face is soon blown off by Munson in a slight disagreement over divvying up the spoils of the BLA robbery.

Webb’s demise opens up a slot for his replacement. Carney demurs. He’d rather not accept the offer to act as Munson’s temporary wheelman for the night on an intense robbery spree, knocking over illicit gambling joints. “Yeah,” Munson says. “[But] you’re my partner now, Carney.” Whitehead’s penchant for dark comedy emerges as the novice stickup man has to be schooled repeatedly by Munson on how to brandish a gun in a manner that might threaten others; holding it the right way up would be a good start. At the first card game they interrupt, Carney’s arm keeps slowly sinking, as if “capitulating to an invisible burden.” And at another raid, Munson is surprised to see Carney “raise his hands, don’t-shoot style, once business started.”

Overall, the narrator’s tone is cool, matter-of-fact, amused. Munson may be hell-bent on dispatching anyone who gets in his way, but the likely outcome, given that Crook Manifesto is the second of three installments in this series, is that Carney will survive, and Detective Munson, once the BLA and Notch Walker’s men catch up with him, will be invited to “go for a ride.”

Indeed, when his pursuers arrive unannounced at Munson’s hideaway, “sadness and fury” flood his eyes with the realization that the jig is up. He tries to catch Carney’s attention, but the Harlem store owner keeps “his face as blank as cement.” It would be a stretch to suggest that a man who has just callously dispatched his partner of many years is a candidate for compassion, but when Munson is led away, marked for a death that is likely to be drawn out and gruesome, a stray thought akin to pity lingers as you turn the page.

Crook Manifesto, like Harlem Shuffle, is divided into three parts, set in 1971, 1973, and 1976. Each can be read as a discrete story. But they’re sufficiently porous to allow for the development of minor characters who featured in the previous book. In part 2 of Crook Manifesto, we are reacquainted with Pepper, a gruff loner who relishes the solitude of his two-room apartment above a funeral parlor on the corner of 143rd and Convent. In the past he’d been on “jobs” with Big Mike Carney and was known for the ease with which he could project menace. Pepper is “a six-foot frown molded by black magic into human form.” In Harlem Shuffle he carried on the family connection, acting as a wary protector, foil, and guide for Ray Carney on a number of dangerous assignments; he was as loyal as an old beaten dog to whom the Carney family had shown unexpected kindness.

At the start of 1973, a couple of years after the business with Munson, Carney hires Pepper to oversee security for the blaxploitation movie being filmed at his store. Secret Agent: Nefertiti features a tall, platform boot–wearing, kung fu–kicking “black lady secret agent in the cracker-killing business.” There had been a problem with items being stolen from the set, and when Pepper arranges himself on a stool on the corner of 125th and Morningside, the thieving stops. Pepper has a cool, slow-burning rage; he is a proxy for the kind of African American, identified by James Baldwin at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, who, if “relatively conscious,” walked the streets of the US “in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time.” Pepper’s rage, though, constantly bubbling below the surface, is expressed only intermittently; he has not examined the interior of his life but suspects that the hollowness at its center—highlighted by others—may be real.

Sure, Pepper has “clipped” a few wrong ones in his day, and never lost sleep over it, but his moral code is at the center of the book and explains its title: “A man has a hierarchy of crime, of what is morally acceptable and what is not, a crook manifesto, and those who subscribe to lesser codes are cockroaches. Are nothing.” There are various clauses and subclauses to Pepper’s code, such as “never knock over a bank on a Tuesday” or invite dopeheads to join your crew. “Never work with actors” should have been included on the list, but Pepper will only arrive at this wisdom the hard way.

When Lucinda Cole, the star of Secret Agent: Nefertiti, goes AWOL, Pepper is tasked by Carney with tracking her down and possibly rescuing her. In this moment, Pepper becomes a kind of crude detective who gives short shrift to any equivocation from those on whom he puts the bite.

Superficially, Cole appears cast in the mold of a femme fatale, a cousin to Daphne Monet in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. She’s a mysterious damsel in distress who appears oblivious to the distress she causes in others. While Monet passes for white, Cole accentuates her working-class blackness (she’s undeniably black, but has she really grown up in the ghetto?) in order to appeal to casting directors, producers, and journalists. Another complication, as Pepper will find out, is that Cole is a former girlfriend of Chink Montague, who has allegedly plucked the aspiring actress from the gutter, cleaned her up, and showered her with jewels.

The gangster’s allure diminished once Cole was courted by Hollywood, albeit briefly. Her absence shuts down the filming, but there’s no anger at the selfish antics of an actress who almost “got over” and made it in Hollywood. Rather, there’s a pervasive and unspoken sense of loss. Starlets like Cole and even blaxploitation directors like Zippo, brimming with ambition, are local heroes for their community; its hopes are invested in them, and when they fail, everybody fails. People take it hard. The search for Cole becomes a quest for a way back to the road to racial uplift. “Nefertiti” translates as “the beautiful woman has come.” Now that she’s gone, Pepper readily agrees to find her.

The trail leads him to a number of unwelcome encounters. All add to Whitehead’s vivid tapestry of the 1970s Harlem underworld. First, there’s the junkie comedian Pope, whose arms suggest an “exercise regimen that consisted of hoisting a coke spoon.” Next, a pit stop at Quincy Black’s renovated Harlem brownstone, where the effete drug dealer’s rule that guests remove their shoes is met with a hard no by Pepper, no matter that in the standoff Black commands his henchman, “Pickles—welcome this nigger to the house.” It doesn’t go as Pickles, armed with a butcher knife, might expect. The final destination is Chink Montague’s hangout, where a perilous showdown takes place. The once fearsome crime boss now “looked like a doped-up lion in a shitty city zoo.” Knives are thrown, guns are drawn and fired, and though Pepper walks away from the mayhem, he begins to wonder whether the reward for finding Cole outweighs the risks.

Saving Cole is in some ways an act of redemption for Pepper, a solution for his pervasive melancholy and the truth, identified by a woman he’d gone with years ago, that “he was, in fact, empty,” as desolate as the last trains hurtling through the indifferent void of New York’s subway tunnels. Pepper and Carney share a belief in doing the right thing, which coalesces around their unstated search to break free of the protective exoskeleton that seems a requirement of survival in the city. The narrator notes of Carney:

He’d had to grow a concrete skin for a concrete city. Not concrete, something harder, like schist. But the fires had been drawing near. Every siren since the city started falling to pieces had been a countdown to the siren that was coming for him.

One of the pleasures of Crime Manifesto is how it subtly reveals its purpose as it progresses: it is an excavation of the social history of Harlem, of benign and not-so-benign neglect, told with keen intelligence through a crime novel set in an era of political and racial upheaval. “Harlem was beginning its slide,” Whitehead writes, “in burned-out tenements full of ghosts and stores that never reopened.” Sirens announced yet another building in flames. Scores of bankrupt businesses and run-down housing stock were regularly torched by paid arsonists. In the 1970s the city was increasingly known for its violence, with more than 1,500 homicides in 1972.

A crime novel dictates the inclusion of violence, but Whitehead handles it with great care. There are dramatic set pieces: combatants wrestling interminably over who gets to pull the trigger on a gun; a would-be victim bundled into the back of a car, managing to open a door as it speeds along the freeway and roll out onto the shoulder. Gangsters are shot, but the writing does not linger on the consequences; there are no depictions of dripping blood or suppurating wounds. In effect the violence is present but attenuated. It’s as if Whitehead had taken a color movie and converted it into black and white.

And then there is the violence that you don’t see. When, for instance, Pepper catches up with assailants who have introduced him to the damage a baseball bat can do to a body, he turns the tables on them, announcing his preference for using a crowbar. Whitehead spares us the vivid details of what unfolds. He writes simply: “It began.”

Carney is also motivated by revenge, not so much against hoodlums but against bigoted, wealthy African Americans indifferent to others’ pain. He becomes incensed when he learns that Albert, the son of his tenant Mrs. Ruiz, has been injured while playing in a derelict building torched by an arsonist. With Pepper’s help Carney sets out to find the culprits.

Carney eventually gains admittance to the charmed inner circle of the Dumas Club, but he still feels like an outsider, or at least feels treated like one. Even within the club there is a top tier, policed by those such as Alexander Oakes, a candidate for Manhattan borough president, who have already reached a level to which Carney, because of his dark skin and tradesman’s class, can never aspire.

This is magnified by his wife Elizabeth’s admiration for oleaginous men like Oakes, the kind of elite, light-skinned, highly educated “talented tenth” celebrated decades ago by W.E.B. Du Bois, who believed they would lead the charge to become fully integrated into mainstream white society. Elizabeth and the members of the Women for Oakes association, who appear to swoon in his presence, do not see that the man is a fraud—but Carney does. Evidence of Oakes’s fraudulence is also conflated with a genial yet patronizing comment he makes to Carney at a fundraiser: “You’ve come a long way.” Carney fumes to himself: “Come a long way from what?”

A businessman confident in his achievements might shrug off the perceived slight. Carney is not that man. He struggles to locate the emotion sparked in him whenever Oakes glides into a room, but it is transparently a form of resentment mixed with schadenfreude. No doubt, if Pepper were ever to ask Carney whether he wanted Oakes gone or gone from his life, there would be some serious deliberation. And when it appears that Oakes is involved in the arson that led to Albert’s hospitalization, Carney’s bias is confirmed. There’s one thing he must do.

Pepper recognizes the resurgence of a family trait in Ray Carney: “You’d have an easier time grabbing a bone from a junkyard dog than getting a Carney man to let go of a grudge.” Finally, Carney proves as indomitable as Pepper. “The City tried to break him. It didn’t work. He was a genuine Manhattan schist and that don’t break easy.” The realization begins to dawn on Carney that he will never be able to resist the lure of criminality, no matter the potentially dangerous consequences. Even as his social advancement seems to falter and Harlem’s turmoil and fires come close to home, he seems set to fight another day.