In 1960s Harlem, Ray Carney owns his own furniture store and is determined to prove himself as an honest businessman, in stark contrast to his crooked dead father. But Carney has never been completely clean, and he supplements his income by fencing stolen goods. When his hapless cousin Freddie lines him up to fence jewellery stolen in a robbery of the Hotel Theresa, it seems that Carney can’t avoid being part of the criminal underworld he’s worked so hard to escape.
Structured in three parts, the novel homes in on key events in Carney’s life: first the hotel heist, then a story of revenge against a businessman who cheats him out of $500, and lastly, against the backdrop of the Harlem Riots of 1964, when Carney is caught up in another theft, a murder, and becomes the target of a corrupt New York real estate magnate.
Harlem Shuffle has the pace, humor, and edginess of an Elmore Leonard novel or a Quentin Tarantino movie. The balance between plot and description is expertly handled. Descriptions of Harlem are vivid and compelling to read. Duality is the overriding theme. Carney lives two lives, “trying to keep one half of himself separate from the other half,” running his businesses out of one building with two separate doors, one legitimate, one not; keeping his wife, children and loyal employees separate from his crooked side. The duality is also true of New York City— “the black city and the white city: overlapping, ignorant of each other, separate and connected by tracks.”
Whitehead’s skill as a writer is on full display here, particularly in his seemingly effortless ability to capture a time and place within a character-driven story.