What Is Crime in a Country Built on It?

How Colson Whitehead subverts genre conventions in his new book

Black-and-white illustration of man lighting cigarette with hat down in foreground, with "Carney's" storefront in lights and long-shadowed silhouettes of men walking in distance behind
Matt Williams

When I was 7 years old, I went with my friends to a nearby corner store after school. I remember the outing vividly—even the brands of chocolate-chip cookies I was torn between buying. Just when I had settled on Famous Amos, I felt a hard push, then heard the words “Get out! Get out!” We were stealing, the shop owner said. “Don’t come back!” Not long after, I recall being inside a stuffy car with my grandmother. We were on our way to one of the tax-free outlet malls in Delaware, but not to shop. When we arrived, my cousin was sitting on the edge of the pavement by the parking lot, waiting for us. “I swear she didn’t steal anything,” she said, crying, her head in her hands. My aunt was being held by the mall police for shoplifting.

People are sometimes asked, “When did you become aware of your race?” This was not that moment for me, though around this time, I certainly realized that my race marked me as a thief. I know I should be offended, but I have always found robbery glamorous: In a kind of defiance, I have preferred to associate theft with high-end getaway cars and wads of cash stuffed into suede jewelry pouches, soft to the touch. I imagined myself, and still do, in league with the slinky cat burglar Selina Kyle (also known as Catwoman), Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million, and En Vogue on the Set It Off soundtrack. I am far from alone. Everywhere you turn, the world of thievery is inhabited by sleek and sexy heroines and dapper playboys who can pick locks and crack safes. Even Helen Mirren wants to be in a Fast and Furious movie.

Colson Whitehead, too, seems to have fallen for the seductive allure of the thief in his newest novel, Harlem Shuffle. When he sat down to work on it, he had just finished The Underground Railroad (2016), and hoped that this next book, the story of a reluctant fence in early-1960s Harlem, would offer a reprieve. “The Underground Railroad was so heavy that I thought the crime novel might be a good choice for my sanity,” he told The New York Times in 2019. All that fun, however, would have to wait. Exasperated by the endless cycle of police shootings of Black teenagers, Whitehead decided to pursue another idea he had been working on, a darker tale that became The Nickel Boys (2019), a fictional account of the real-life Dozier School for Boys, a reform school in Florida whose inmates were subjected to brutal beatings, sexual abuse, and murder. Renaming it the Nickel Academy in his novel, Whitehead follows two teenage boys who hastily hatch an escape attempt.

Whitehead’s Harlem caper may seem a dramatic departure from its two sobering predecessors. Yet in their own way, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys were also crime novels, devoted—much like Harlem Shuffle—to the odyssey of the fugitive. Whitehead’s latest features a young furniture dealer named Ray Carney who is caught up in a jewel heist that forces him to wrestle with the impossible terms confronting him as a Black man trying to get ahead in life. To escape his circumstances, will he fare best simply by following the straight and narrow? Is there such a thing when Black shopkeepers like him cannot secure bank loans? Or should he rely on the world of criminals to get what he wants, what he needs? After all, their ends and means feel no less amoral than what he sees being practiced by businessmen and the moneyed elite. “Crooked world, straight world, same rules,” Ray thinks. “Everybody had a hand out for the envelope.”

Set against a backdrop of the 1964 Harlem race riots, looting, gentrification, and corrupt Black capitalists, Harlem Shuffle is a story about property and the vexed relationship that African Americans have with it. Indeed, what is theft for a people who were themselves once property (“stolen bodies working stolen land,” as Whitehead wrote in The Underground Railroad ), and for whom their very freedom was the ultimate heist?

We first meet Ray Carney, the proud purveyor of Carney’s Furniture on 125th Street, in 1959 during the civil-rights movement, but the progress he is most interested in is his own. With his name spelled out in large letters on Harlem’s main thoroughfare, he feels confident that he has finally overcome his ignominious family origins. His father, Mike Carney, was a local hustler and petty thief who was gunned down by police while stealing cough syrup from a pharmacy. Early in the novel, Ray recalls being teased in school and, following his father’s advice, hitting one of his bullies in the face with a pipe. He vowed at that moment, he remembers, to chart a new course: “The way he saw it, living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live. You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.” His store, “scrabbled together by his wits and industry,” marks a new chapter for the Carney name, an honest and legitimate one (though he has just launched a “gently used” section full of secondhand items, some of dubious provenance). So when his cousin, Freddie, asks him if he can fence some stolen jewelry, Ray balks. “I sell furniture,” he insists, to which Freddie, who recently brought in a “gently used” TV set, responds, “Nigger, please.”

Ray refuses to see himself as a crook. He does not traffic stolen goods so much as simply recognize “a natural flow of goods in and out and through people’s lives, from here to there, a churn of property.” What, then, to make of the discovery that Ray got the money for the furniture store by finding $30,000 in cash in the spare tire of his late father’s truck? The murky distinction between legality and illegality sits at the core of Harlem Shuffle. Ray encounters two paths: He can follow Freddie into further criminality or try to become an upstanding member of Harlem’s Black business elite.

Yet the distinction between the two slowly starts to blur as Ray realizes that he may need both the scoundrels with guns and the scoundrels with business cards to get what he wants, namely an apartment on Riverside Drive. In time, his sense of right and wrong—and by extension his sense of himself as the son of Mike Carney—is upended. Is Leland, his wife’s father and “one of black Harlem’s premier accountants,” any less of a crook than he or Freddie is? Leland, after all, is always bragging “about his collection of loopholes and dodges,” about how he can “get you off the hook.”

Ray’s desire to be taken seriously as a legitimate businessman is not just about shaking off the reputation of his father; he also wants to stick his self-made success in the face of his wife’s family. Owners of a townhouse on Strivers’ Row in Harlem and descendants of Seneca Village, a community of Black landowners in Manhattan that was razed to make Central Park, Leland and Alma Jones regard their daughter’s choice of husband with a disdain that borders on shame, referring to him as “some sort of rug peddler.” When Freddie presents Ray with the opportunity to fence stolen articles from safe-deposit boxes at the Hotel Theresa, the “Waldorf of Harlem” and host to the Black bourgeoisie, it feels less like robbery and more like a revenge fantasy.

When he gets an opportunity to join the Dumas Club, an elite association of Black businessmen that Leland belongs to, that fantasy only intensifies. A member of the club board, a well-known banker named Wilfred Duke, presses for $500—what Ray considers “a sweetener”—to make the deal happen. When it doesn’t, a furious Ray concocts an elaborate plot involving a drug dealer, a pimp, and a crooked cop to bring down Duke, who sees nothing wrong with the transaction: It was an investment that fell through, in the eyes of a man busy “at the bank snatching back loans, foreclosing on hope.”

In the moral universe of Harlem Shuffle, the honest in honest work is literal. The novel privileges the perspectives of its avowed criminals—thieves, mobsters, and prostitutes, all candid about the nature of their profession—over those who have convinced themselves that their dubious machinations are ethical, which is to say bankers, real-estate developers, and the suits who work to find them loopholes. When looting breaks out during the riots, Leland deplores the “shiftless element” that has infiltrated the more respectable student protest movement. Whitehead juxtaposes Ray’s view: When he sees signs protesting eminent domain where extended construction of the World Trade Center is set to begin, he thinks back to the looting. That “devastation had been nothing compared to what lay before him,” he thinks. “If you bottled the rage and hope and fury of all the people of Harlem and made it into a bomb, the results would look something like this.” Can theft really be a crime, the novel asks us, in a country built on it?

Ray’s insights are part of what makes him bewildering as a character. Though himself a professional fence—by the novel’s end he’s stopped trying to think otherwise—he never gives up on the prosperity gospel or the promises of Black capitalism. When the looting dies down, he is relieved; his primary concern isn’t the fate of Black teenagers like James Powell (whose shooting sparked the riots), but his business and those of his fellow Black store owners. Indeed, none of the criminals whom the novel holds up as having profound moral clarity about the hypocrisy of the ruling classes shows any interest in Black protest or even Black history (which feels especially significant, given Whitehead’s recent dedication to the historical novel). “How am I supposed to get a motherfucking sandwich with all that going on?” Freddie fumes when the riots close down restaurants. The Hotel Theresa heist occurs on Juneteenth. The organizer of the robbery, a gangster named Miami Joe, doesn’t know it is Juneteenth, but welcomes the coincidence, hoping someone will think it was a racially motivated hit and get thrown off the scent.

Ray displays a pessimism not unlike that of Jack Turner in The Nickel Boys. Turner is the foil to Elwood Curtis, an idealistic young Black man who throws himself into the civil-rights movement and writes pieces about social justice for the Chicago Defender. Despite the brutal unfairness Elwood suffers, he has faith in the innate goodness of people and is convinced that if he can just get a letter to the state inspectors, they will shut down the school. Jack is incredulous. “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there,” Jack says. “You got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” Jack sees Black survival as something that has to be seized when those in power are looking the other way; in short, it must be stolen.

Jack and Ray both recognize justice and injustice as a false binary. Jack was sent to a reform school that was itself run by criminals, and the people who steal most brazenly from Ray do not see themselves as crooks, but as legitimate businessmen. Jack’s experience turns him into a realist, not an activist. Frustratingly, Ray likewise remains a pragmatist, never fully disavowing the charms of the Black bourgeoisie—a choice that is of course his right, just as it is Whitehead’s to write a novel devoid of prescriptions. In fact, his refusal might even be considered radical at a moment when readers are turning to Black writers for answers rather than for art.

Whitehead follows in a long tradition of Black writers who employ crime fiction subversively, using the genre against itself to expose the hypocrisies of the justice system, the false moral dictates set by capitalism, and the very fact that America itself was born of a theft that we are all complicit in. Indeed, what good is a standard whodunit when the answer is “everyone”? Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series, which follows a conflicted Black private eye as he reluctantly works for the police, acknowledges the richness of African American life in Los Angeles, often neglected in classic L.A. noir stories. Pauline Hopkins, whose Hagar’s Daughter (1901) is considered one of the first works of African American detective fiction, employs the genre’s devices to make a thriller out of Civil War–era Black life, using passing to satisfy the trope of mistaken identity. The satirist Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) has been called by some an “anti–detective novel” in the sense that it eschews the classic figure of the white detective as empiricist (Holmes, Poirot, etc.) in favor of PaPa LaBas, an “astrodetective” who conjures clues with the help of “jewelry, Black astrology charts, herbs, potions, candles, talismans.”

Harlem Shuffle strikes me as doing a bit of each of these things, and more. What we call a crime and whom we label a criminal are clearly issues very much on Whitehead’s mind—and his added twist is to leave out the figure of the detective altogether. The cops are all paid off; the characters fear payback, not jail time. Some readers may find the absence of a real police presence in the novel a missed opportunity for social commentary, but others—I’m among them—can appreciate that Whitehead’s omission allows the people in his book to savor the delight that transgression brings. Understanding all too well how little the world has to offer his characters—Black men and women who scrounge so they can buy a piece of furniture from Ray’s store on a payment plan—he cannot bring himself to deprive them of a small part in a caper. Few of his crooks get off entirely free (the gangsters and the businessmen they represent eventually come knocking). Still, many are given a brief moment to revel in the high of the heist, which is close enough.

This article appears in the October 2021 print edition with the headline “Colson Whitehead Subverts the Crime Novel.”