Colson Whitehead: Why a Heist Novel Was the Best Way to Tell the Story of New York
“I wanted to salute that moment of night and those nighthawks.”
There’s the New York we see. The streets and neighborhoods, townhouses and office buildings, stoops and bodegas. That’s a damn good city, electric and irrepressible, but there’s another place just beyond that surface and it’s populated by our ambitions. A city of nighthawks and hustlers. Around every corner, a new scheme. That’s the heady undergirding of Colson Whitehead’s newest novel, Harlem Shuffle (Doubleday, 2021).
Whitehead is author to ten books and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (twice, for his last two, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys), but Harlem Shuffle marks his first entry into the world of crime fiction. It’s the story of Ray Carney, a furniture store owner in early 1960s Harlem, a pillar of the 125th Street business corridor, and a family man with eyes on a three-bedroom on Riverside Drive. He’s also dabbling in some fencing of stolen goods. Pretty soon he’s doing more than dabbling, when his cousin gets him caught up in the aftermath of a notorious heist: the score on the Hotel Theresa, epicenter of Harlem high society.
Carney’s journey is a navigation of the self, between his respectable, rule-following side and the other part of him, the crook’s son with a penchant for revenge and designs on rising up by any means available. Whitehead tells Carney’s story in three parts, following the wider chronicle of New York during a turbulent period, when the city we know today was still coming together.
I caught up with Whitehead in the lead-up to Harlem Shuffle’s release. We spoke about New York, class divisions, fences, heists, segmented sleep, and why he was drawn to writing a crime novel.
Dwyer Murphy: So why this book? A couple years ago I saw you at an event and you said you were working on a crime novel. I didn’t quite believe you. I thought maybe you were just putting me on. But this is an honest-to-God crime novel.
Colson Whitehead: Whether I’m writing about zombies amok or a heist, this is stuff I like. I have to give myself permission, though. Can I write a crime novel? I’m not an expert. Can I write a zombie novel? I’ve read very few zombie novels, although I do like zombie movies. Or it might be about slavery or, say, coming-of-age in 1980s Sag Harbor. I try to come at it from my own point-of-view and to make a contribution. I enjoy it. Hopefully if you do that right, other people will come along and enjoy it too.
DM: Were there authors in the crime tradition you were looking to as you started the project?
CW: Well I thought I should see what’s happening now, and I kept reading these detective novels, until I realized, I don’t care about detectives. Or cops. I care about the psychos.
Richard Stark was very important. His sociopathic master thief, Parker, is hopefully in the book somewhere. The Parker books are very lean—usually about 180 pages—and they’re very funny. I know people say Donald Westlake as Westlake is a funny writer, but I find the deadpan humor of the Stark novels up my alley.
Chester Himes is in the book, too. Obviously if you’re going to write about Harlem in the 1950s and 60s, you have to go to Himes. His Harlem landscape is amorphous. It’s hard to map out in my head. The only thing that’s clear is that everyone is corrupt. You’re either conning or being conned. It was exciting to go back to him.
And then there’s also Patricia Highsmith. Carney isn’t as extreme as Ripley, but he has a divided self. If you go back to the early Ripley books, he’s detached from his homicidal urges and his queerness. He doesn’t really address these things but they drive so much of what he does. I was trying to capture that with Carney, too—this conflict between being a member of society and also having a criminal, crooked nature.
DM: How did you form the Harlem landscape for this? It reads to me such a vivid setting.
CW: I wanted to play it straight. The tradition, which takes a lot from detective fiction, is that the city is an allegorical New York. There are not a lot of streets or places named in the book. I knew I wanted it to be as faithful as I could make it, but I also needed to give myself five percent leeway to make some changes. To make, say, this tenement into a townhouse. So there were a lot of sessions on Google Maps.
I also did location scouting, which I do when I write about New York these days. I haven’t lived in Harlem since I was about five. I’ve lived in Brooklyn and downtown. So I would just walk around Harlem and say, “oh maybe that’s where Carney has his office” or “that’s where he grew up.” Or I’d walk to Striver’s Row, which I went to for a kid’s birthday party when I was little. When you’re there you get reacquainted with how you turn a corner and there’s a little oasis, and you turn another corner and you’re back in a grubby cityscape.
So there was a lot of walking around New York, and then the research pays off. I didn’t know anything about the Hotel Theresa when I started. It played such a big role in Black culture and Harlem culture in the 1950s. So it became a big setting for me. Blumstein’s was another one. It was a big department store in Harlem, and I decided to put it in my book. I mentioned it to my Mom and she said, “Oh your father worked in Blumstein’s as a stock boy for two summers.”
DM: With a certain kind of crime novel, one of the big thrills comes in getting a glimpse into the secret working of a place. The hidden power structures, the grease that makes it all work. Your protagonist, Carney, gets a few of those glimpses, too. He learns who the operators are, how the envelopes are passed. That seemed to me central to his journey.
CW: As Carney gives over more and more to his criminal inclinations, he sees that secret crooked world. There’s Carney’s front self and his secret, criminal self. There’s the front store and then what’s happening in the back. The craps game, the numbers racket. Or take a non criminal locale, these New York townhouses. There’s this secret history of Italians, Irish, Jewish people, Germans, who have come to New York, move into these townhouses, and then they left. And the facade betrays nothing of that secret history. There are so many sides to the people and to the city itself.
DM: Here’s something I’ve been wondering. How did you learn so much about midcentury furniture? Carney runs this successful furniture shop on 125th Street. He thinks about sofas a lot.
CW: I found a sociological study about fences called “The Fence.” A lot of fences would have front operations, with the criminal businesses in the back. Upholstering furniture, for example, was a common one. Or you’d go to a swap meet, and there’s the rare coin guy. Picking a front operation allows you to operate in these different spheres.
Also, I’ve always loved midcentury modern furniture. Making Carney a credible furniture store owner meant going back to old images on Pinterest. If you’re an aficionado of the genre you post pamphlets of furniture stores from the 1950s and scan them so everyone can share. All the language was taken from real pamphlets and advertisements at the time.
DM: So you knew you wanted a fence. Then you built the character out from there. Why a fence?
CW: In a heist movie, you’re rooting for the criminals. I come to it from the movies. They do all the work, half the gang is shot up, the police are on their trail, and they have five million dollars in gems. They go to the fence and the fence says, “Oh I’ll give you ten cents on the dollar.” It’s always so appalling. They’ve done all this work and then this fucking guy comes in. So I started wondering, who is this guy? How does he operate? He’s a barrier between the criminal world and the straight world.
I like a certain kind of heist movie. I mean, I enjoy Ocean’s 11, but if you can wheel in a million dollar electromagnetic pulse to shut down casino security, it’s not the same legwork as in this other kind of heist movie. A movie like The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, Charlie Varrick’s outfit. So I started picking up these 1970s, low-tech crime movies. And the 1950s and 1960s classics, Asphalt Jungle<, The Killing, Rififi, Jean Pierre Melville’s The Red Circle. No technology. Very flawed crew. And a fence.
DM: How did you settle on the period? Early 1960s NYC.
CW: The thing I knew was that I wanted it to be in New York. That’s my place. And I wanted the criminals to exploit a big New York event. So I was looking at the blackout of ‘77, the riots of ‘43, and the riots of ‘64. Ralph Ellison kind of owns the riots in ‘43, with Invisible Man. I wanted to stay clear of that. And I was thinking about how a heist would work in 1964, I kept coming up with stories for Carney. Soon, it became a three part novel. Each novella would follow Carney along on his journey to criminality. His rejection of it, his embracing it.
DM: It’s interesting you seized on years of riots and protests. Carney’s coming at those events from a very particular angle. He’s a small business owner. He’s thinking about his store, his plate glass windows. He’s not jumping in the protests. Or there’s his cousin Freddie, who’s telling the story of that day in the context of trying to get a sandwich.
CW: It’s not my job to make Freddie or Carney into upstanding figures who are down with the cause. They’re much older than the students who were the main mass of the protest movements. So Freddie, when he sees college kids marching, thinks, “Maybe I can go talk to some girls.” I’m not pushing a false political consciousness on these characters. They are who they are. Not everyone is down as we want them to be.
DM: Can we talk about the concept of dorveille? This idea that Carney is up late at night when the city is asleep, doing his books, working his schemes, eventually plotting his revenge. Where did that come from?
CW: There was a thing in The New York Times about segmented sleep and its forgotten history. How it was more common before the invention of the electric lamp. I read that and thought maybe I would use it one day. When I was coming up with Carney’s lifestyle it seemed like a natural fit. Dorveille—a sort of midnight hour, a watch. Primetime crime time is a phrase I liked, but it didn’t make it into the book, it was a bit too silly. But that moment of midnight industry is recognizable to crooks, writers, alcoholics, and insomniacs. I’ve been in a few of those categories over the years. When I was younger I would have a midnight shift. I would write through the day, my then-girlfriend would go to bed, and I would write from eleven to one. Now I’m too old to do that. But I remember those moments when it seemed like everyone was asleep and there no lights on in the thousands of apartments outside your window. It was just you and whatever crazy thing you were working on. I wanted to salute that moment of night and those nighthawks.
DM: How did you develop the voice for this novel? It’s hard to characterize. I guess what I’m wondering is who, in your mind, is telling this story?
CW: I usually have a close third-person narrator. I’ll have it migrate into different characters’ heads. It became apparent early that sticking with Carney except for a brief foray with Freddie and a ridealong with Pepper was the way to go. The voice is someone who’s allied to Carney, privy to his fears and wishes, but also someone who recognizes Carney’s foibles, although it holds back from commenting on them directly. When the narrator says Carney is only a little bent when it comes to being crooked, that’s a sardonic phrase. He’s judging Carney, but he’s also very fond of Carney.
DM: That phrase gets at another idea that really preoccupies Carney. What’s the distinction between a striver and a crook? Everyone’s on the make. Everyone’s hustling. That idea hits home for him when he’s approached by the Club Dumas—an association of businessmen in Harlem. They work him over.
CW: He doesn’t like those guys, but he thinks it’s good for his career to join a businessman’s association. This book isn’t as concerned with race as the last two, but class is very important. Money. It’s a New York novel. Real estate plays a big role. If Carney can just get a better apartment—three bedrooms—everything will be fixed.
The upper crust that his wife belongs to is very crooked, we see quickly. The book’s three part scheme allowed me to zoom in on the first period, then pull back in 1961, so that we can see a wider angle of corruption—the secret, corrupt New York. Then we pull back again to see who has the real power. Wall Street, the Park Avenue moguls. So class and aspiration are central to the book.
DM: That feels especially appropriate for a New York novel. Corruption and striving. You keep leveling up and finding that the people in the station supposedly above yours are even more corrupt.
CW: Right. Miami Joe was a crook. He’s not making Van Wyck money.
DM: In New York you keep moving up the corruption chain and eventually you find the guy holding onto the deed on that new building in midtown.
CW: The tax breaks. The promises for low-income housing developments. Lying through your teeth, erasing neighborhoods with eminent domain. All that big time gamesmanship puts the first sections of the book into perspective.
DM: It puts it into a crime fiction tradition, too. It’s Chinatown. It’s about real estate, who owns the city.
CW: Always. It’s not what you think it is. It’s the other thing.
DM: So is this it for you and crime fiction or is there more to come?
CW: I’m working on Carney in the 1970s. I’m two-thirds of the way through the second volume of Carney’s life in New York. The 1970s provides a different backdrop. The city is bankrupt, crime is at an all-time high, in different ways. You’ve got the bicentennial and the blackout. There’s a lot on his plate in the 1970s.
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is available now from Doubleday.