In 2019, Colson Whitehead, the author of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, decided to realise a long-held ambition and write a crime caper. Harlem Shuffle follows furniture salesman Ray Carney through three decades and three crimes, as his crooked side-hustle as a fence for stolen goods takes over his life.
In order to flesh out his protagonist, Whitehead, who appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 2019, headline America’s Storyteller, walked the streets of Harlem. There, the 51-year-old discovered that even he, born and raised and still resident in Manhattan, could still be surprised by New York City. “I’d never been to Marcus Garvey Park but it was a big place for dumping bodies if you were a gangster,” he tells me on a Zoom call from his holiday home on Long Island, where he spends time with his wife, Julie Barer, a literary agent, and their two children. “You find out stuff like that and it becomes part of the lore of the characters’ lives.”
Whitehead—a formidable presence even virtually, delivering uncomfortable truths before chuckling at how bleak they sound when said aloud—had the idea for Harlem Shuffle in 2014. At the time he was working on his breakthrough novel, The Underground Railroad, a project which took him over a decade to complete, adding a line or two as they came to him. The book followed Cora, a slave who escapes from a plantation using the network of safe passages of the title, which Whitehead, in an inspired twist of magical realism, reimagined as a physical, subterranean train route running beneath America’s southern states.
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