Crook Manifesto
Colson Whitehead
Fleet, £20

Welcome back Ray Carney, a reformed individual since his appearance in Harlem Shuffle. In that, the first part of Colson Whitehead’s projected trilogy about New York in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, he introduced his hardworking family man and furniture salesman, who found himself following his hoodlum father’s lead down the criminal highway. 
As the 1970s dawn, however, and Crook Manifesto opens, Carney is a new man: “sometimes whole hours passed where he didn’t have a crooked thought.” Thieves arriving with stolen goods hoping he will act as middleman leave disappointed. For the past four years, Carney has not set a toe out of line. 
This being Whitehead’s world, however, at a time when Harlem was becoming a byword for violent crime, it isn’t long before Carney’s resolve weakens. Or, to put it in his own words: “Crooked stays crooked and bent hates straight. The rest is survival.”
The cause of his downfall is his daughter May’s eagerness for tickets to a sold-out Jackson 5 concert. A call to an old contact, a venal detective with the NYPD, and the problem is fixed. Naturally, the detective wants something in return, and shortly after being promised the best seats in the house, Carney is back in the reprobate saddle.
Acting for one nightmarish night as the detective’s sidekick, he is catapulted into the cauldron of murder, gangs and civic corruption that defined New York in the decade when it was almost bankrupted. The dilapidation of entire streets bears witness to the tides of humanity and misfortune that have washed over the city. 
“It was creeping on everyone, like a gloom blowing over the East River and into the vast grid, the apprehension that things were not as they had been and it would be a long time before they were right again.” Occasionally Carney feels nostalgic: “Harlem wasn’t the same. Crooks these days had no code and less class.”
Irony abounds in Whitehead’s effervescent depiction of life on the wrong side of the law, showing how close to perdition that road can take you. His setting is reminiscent of journalist David Simon’s exposes of the underbelly of Baltimore later in the century – poverty, hopelessness, casual viciousness, and people ignored or crushed by those in power, who are as crooked as any behind bars. 
By this measure, Carney and his pals are simply doing what it takes to stay afloat in a piranha tank. But as Whitehead’s comic touch suggests, there is bone-deep satisfaction in defying those who would trample any human obstacle underfoot. Hence the humour that ripples through every page, no matter how grim the set-up.  
Pepper, Carney’s aptly-named friend, is one of the most fearsome individuals in Harlem. 
When he is hired to steal a recipe from a restaurant’s rival – his recompense a once-weekly plate of fried chicken for the rest of his days – it’s clear that Whitehead is not dealing in psychopaths so much as those indelibly shaped by their circumstances. Hence Pepper’s philosophy of who he will and will not work for: “Foot soldier for assholes? He’d already done that in World War II. 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.”
Covering 1971 to 1976, Crook Manifesto is a both an homage to American hard-boiled crime fiction and an utterly original bravura performance. The prose is so energised it’s as if Whitehead has minted the language new. 
Liberated from the sombre subject matter of earlier works such as The Underground Railway and The Nickel Boys – both of which won the Pulitzer Prize – in this freewheeling yet intricately plotted novel he appears to be relishing every sentence and scenario. 
For those who have not read its predecessor, Whitehead lightly fills in the backstory, just as he feeds the reader contextual information without making it feel like a history lesson. And certainly, there’s a great deal of context for this Harlem tale, which unfolds during the heyday of the Black Panthers and their militant offshoot, the Black Liberation Army. 
From the offset, there is murder and mayhem at the hands of these revolutionaries: “Race war, class war – they weren’t picky, long as it got going toot sweet.” Given the way white people viewed Harlem and its citizens – Whitehead uses the word anthropology – radical change was required. But there are plenty of other guns on the streets, in the hands of men taking what they want, or in the pay of masters even more ruthless than they.
The scene Whitehead paints would be unrelentingly miserable were it not for his gusto. There are one-liners reminiscent of William McIlvanney: “Any smile that broke out on his face was a mutiny swiftly put down.” 
There are passages that are simultaneously comic and chilling: “stone-cold killers with specialties: stranglers, mincers, men with strong opinions on quicklime versus sulfuric acid …” 
Other times there’s a hint of Dickens’s prolixity: “People as a whole were pretty dim upstairs, and if you started dwelling on this or that person’s dimness, ranking it and measuring just how dim this or that mother****er was, before you realise it half the day is gone.” 
Switching registers but maintaining a seamless tone, Whitehead displays an inimitable narrative confidence and swagger.  
The political and social reverberations of Crook Manifesto are effortlessly handled, refracted through the experience of a handful of central characters, of whom Carney and Pepper are the principals. 
Around them revolves a multitude of supporting figures, including Carney’s wife Elizabeth, for whom he would do anything, except go straight: “What else was an ongoing criminal enterprise complicated by periodic violence for, but to make your wife happy?” 
Such is its complexity and resonance, the composition of this novel feels orchestral. Like Whitehead’s more overtly proselytising novels, it is hard-hitting too. The brutally criminal New York of Crook Manifesto is not some subterranean realm that rarely touches law-abiding citizens. It is the city; wherein lies the tragedy.