By Simon Demetriou

‘What else was an ongoing criminal enterprise complicated by periodic violence for, but to make your wife happy?’ This rhetorical question bookends Colson Whitehead’s Crook Manifesto, the follow up to last year’s Harlem Shuffle, in which we first met protagonist Ray Carney. It turns out, that as well as keeping wives happy, ongoing criminal enterprises complicated by periodic violence make for some spectacular storytelling too.

It is a decade after the events of Harlem Shuffle; Ray finds himself ‘retired, and sometimes whole hours passed where he didn’t have a crooked thought.’ The chances of Ray staying retired were always nil, crookedness being in his blood and in the very fabric of things, but the real blame lies with The Jackson Five. It is the seventies, after all, and a father who wants to ingratiate himself with his teenage daughter has to do what he has to do. In this case, it means reaching out to bent cop and former associate Munson for impossible-to-get concert tickets. Inevitably, things don’t go as planned and Carney finds himself caught up in a homicidal last dance around Harlem as Munson tries to cash out before his crookedness is uncovered.

The second section jumps to 1973 and focuses on the disappearance of the star of a Harlem-set blaxploitation movie. Most importantly, the second section reintroduces Pepper, ‘a six-foot frown molded by black magic into human form’. Whitehead knows his audience, because despite its brilliance, Pepper’s absence is the one sadness of section one. Indeed, the fact that Pepper goes on to share top billing with Ray throughout the second and third parts of the book is largely what makes Crook Manifesto an even more compelling read than its predecessor. When the actress vanishes, it’s Pepper who’s sent to find her, having been hired as the film’s security: ‘he was bored. It had been a long time since he beat a man senseless’, and anyway ‘a lifelong crook doing part-time security work wasn’t so strange. Half the cops in New York were thieving bitches first and cops second’.

Pepper gets all the best lines, and it is his principles, his ‘Crook manifesto’, that gives the novel its title. As we move through section two and into section three, in which we see just how high and far unscrupulous crookedness runs in New York, Whitehead creates a moving picture of this monster, who moans about being called ‘Uncle’ by Ray’s children yet secretly loves it. Crook Manifesto takes on issues such as race relations, corruption, identity and community with insight and power. But among all this, and in a novel where every character matters and each one is masterfully drawn, it is Pepper who remains unforgettable.