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Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Literary fiction

Harlem Shuffle

by Colson Whitehead

Quick take

A riveting and wily historical heist story from a contemporary master that will leave you feeling in on the deal.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Unreliable

    Unreliable narrator

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Movieish


  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Nyc


  • Illustrated icon, Icon_60s


Why I love it

Mateo Askaripour
Author, Black Buck

When it comes to Colson Whitehead’s plots, you never know what you’re going to get. My introduction to the two-time Pulitzer winner was Sag Harbor; a story about a Black kid who spends the summer on Long Island. As someone who grew up there and often felt like an outsider, it spoke to me. John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, The Underground Railroad—novels as exciting and varied as an advent calendar, all connected by themes of power, representation, and America. The man doesn’t miss.

And Harlem Shuffle is no exception. Set in 1950s and 60s Harlem, Whitehead sucks us into the world of Ray Carney, a furniture salesman best described as “curved”—not exactly straight, but not exactly crooked. Carney dreams of a better life for his family, and this motivates him to act as a go-between for thieves and those who acquire their stolen gems, TVs, and radios. But when his cousin, Freddie, pulls him into a heist, we’re forced to ask, “Just how crooked will Carney become?”

With sparing prose packed with a punch, Whitehead’s latest work is a realistic portrayal of how quickly life can get out of hand, as well as the forces—historical, institutional, and familial—that can propel any of us in a direction we didn’t think possible. Revenge, cinematic fight scenes, criminality crackling in the air, even people with names like “Dootsie Bell” and “Miami Joe;” Harlem Shuffle is entertaining, yes, and also educational in a way that only a master of their craft could pull off.

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“Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…” To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.

Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time.

Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesn’t ask questions, either.

Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa—the “Waldorf of Harlem”—and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes.

Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?

Harlem Shuffle’s ingenious story plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.

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Get an early look from the first pages of Harlem Shuffle.

Member thoughts

All (3977)
All (3977)
Love (1206)
Like (1944)
Dislike (827)
4088 ratings
  • 30% Love
  • 48% Like
  • 20% Dislike
  • Longview, TX

    Ray uses “being a little bent” and a heist to realize his goals of success (and revenge). Every time Ray “did a deal,” the plot leapt forward! His internal monologue is super relatable and quotable.

  • Phoenixville, PA

    Carney is really caught in a shuffle between multiple worlds. Weaving of history into the fictional-but could be real-characters. Also, highlighted, how whether you’re rich or poor - you’re shuffling

  • Staten Island, NY

    I don't know how he captures the 'feel' of the time but he does. I lived during this time but not in Harlem. I did live in NY and he nailed it. The beginning is good and book gets better as it goes along

  • Randolph, NJ

    A powerful story of one man’s struggle, in 1960s Harlem, to rise up and own a legit business. His cousin throws a wrench in that. “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…”

  • Dallas, TX

    Whitehead shines again, showcasing the Harlem landscape and the happenings of the time period. There is a slow buildup to the conflict that is worth waiting for. I was vested until the book was done!

  • West Hollywood, CA

    This book is sooooo good! It has all the components of a good heist and caper with all the incredible character development & uses that to dive deep into social and culture issues throughout history!

  • Omaha, NE

    This book was awesome. Such a page turning story that was hard to put down. Breaking the whole thing into three parts was amazing. On the edge of my seat the whole time! Pepper, such a lovable guy!

  • Bozeman, MT

    Loved this homage to the Harlem of 60 years ago. Crime is not my genre but I was captivated by the memorable cast of characters, who are just trying to survive in the face of monumental obstacles.

  • Chicago, IL

    Historical context plus charming and compelling characters & Whitehead's inimitable narrative voice make him one of our top writers. He will be producing more great work, but this one is sweet joy!

  • Saint Paul, MN

    I love heists so this was a no-brainer for me. Harlem Shuffle paints a vibrant portrait of a man and a neighborhood with humor and joy, resignation, and devastation. One of my favorites this year.

  • Washington, DC

    I loved this book! Divided into three big brushes with the law, it’s interesting to see the struggle between the upstanding citizen Carney and the bit crooked Carney. I couldn’t put it down.

  • San Diego, CA

    I'm usually not one for heist novels, but this book was just fantastic. Beautifully written, incredible characters, a bit terrifying but also laugh-out-loud funny -- just a great, fun novel.


    Did not expect the tone to be light despite all that went on in this book. But I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way! Colson Whitehead is a great storyteller and an even better writer.

  • Indianapolis , IN

    Well-written and engaging, Whitehead kept me guessing to the very end. His cast of likable crooks were some of the best characters I’ve read in awhile. Excited to read again.

  • Mount Pleasant, SC

    I expected this to be a "wow" by Colin Whitehead and it was. It wasn't a book to skim over as you would miss too much of the action. I learned some and enjoyed the action.

  • New Orleans, LA

    I enjoyed reading this book! Rich characters and settings!! It takes place in the 60s, but it is almost as if it could be today! Mr. Whitehead is a great writer!!

  • Garfield, NJ

    Being from the NJ/NYC area, I was nervous the book wouldn’t really tell the reader about Harlem but wow…did this writer NAIL the feel of Harlem! Awesome!

  • Woolwich, ME

    The book follows Carney and his furniture store through its very beginnings. Carney struggles with living a life of his family and a life of his own.

  • Malden, MA

    Colson Whitehead is absolutely the master of his craft. This book draws you in and keeps you turning pages long after it should have been bedtime.

  • Minnetonka , MN

    This author never disappoints. This is a departure from some of his other books, but the time-capsule snapshot of 60s era Harlem is exceptional.

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