59 pages 1 hour read

Colson Whitehead

Crook Manifesto

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide


Crook Manifesto is a 2023 novel by Colson Whitehead, a contemporary African American author and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, awarded in 2017 for The Underground Railroad and again in 2020 for The Nickel Boys. Set in 1970s Harlem, Crook Manifesto is the second installment in a planned trilogy of Harlem-based crime novels. Harlem Shuffle, the series’ first novel, was published in 2021. Both novels depict African American life in New York City during years of social upheaval, civil rights, and urban change. Crook Manifesto is divided into three distinct sections, and in interviews, Whitehead has noted that he means each section to function as a linked novella.

This guide references the 2023 hardcover edition by Doubleday.

Plot Summary

Part 1 begins in 1971. Ray Carney, Crook Manifesto’s protagonist, owns a successful furniture store in Harlem. Although Ray once also sold stolen goods, he retired from his criminal enterprise four years ago. Ray is now focused solely on his legal business, his wife, Elizabeth, and his children, May and John. However, Ray is about to take a major detour from his law-abiding path. May desperately wants a pair of tickets to an upcoming, sold-out Jackson 5 show, and without a legal way to obtain tickets, Ray turns to an old contact from his days as a fence: a crooked New York City cop named Munson. Munson agrees to secure a pair of tickets for Ray, but only if Ray finds a buyer for some stolen diamonds he’s recently obtained during a heist. Ray grudgingly agrees, although he soon finds out that the heist was so high-profile that the diamonds will be extremely difficult to sell. While in possession of the diamonds, Ray is mugged by Buck, Munson’s equally crooked partner. Buck steals the diamonds and leaves Ray to find his own way home.

Once Ray regains consciousness and contacts Munson, the two rendezvous with Buck. At the meeting, Munson murders Buck and tells Ray that he intends to leave town. He was issued a subpoena in a high-profile police corruption investigation but has no intention of standing trial. He then leads a reluctant Ray on a violent crime spree. The two rob a poker game, a bar, and a barber shop before retiring to one of Munson’s safe houses. Munson sends Ray for sandwiches, and while he is out, Ray tips off Notch Walker, a local gangster who is looking for Munson. Munson is apprehended. Although Ray was sure that the crooked cop intended to cheat him out of the Jackson 5 tickets, he finds them in an envelope after Munson is taken away. Part 1 closes as Ray accompanies May to the concert.

Part 2 begins in 1973. Ray’s furniture store continues to be a success, and he has returned to selling stolen goods as a side business. Zippo, a former associate who was also a close friend of Ray’s late cousin Freddie, visits Ray at his store. Although he’d once been involved in various criminal enterprises, Zippo is now a full-time photographer and filmmaker. Since he and Ray last spoke, Zippo has earned an art degree from Pratt, become the beneficiary of a sizeable inheritance, and written a Blaxploitation film he intends to shoot in Harlem. He would like to use Ray’s furniture store as one of his movie’s primary locations. Ray agrees, and through this new association with Zippo, he comes into contact with another former associate: Pepper. Pepper is old enough to have known Ray’s father, Mike, and Pepper and Ray have maintained a close bond throughout the course of Ray’s life.

Zippo has hired Pepper to run security on set. His quiet, commanding presence dissuades most would-be thieves and criminals from interfering with filming. Although Pepper was tasked with standing guard on set, the film’s star, Lucinda Cole, goes missing. Zippo tasks Pepper with finding her, and a search ensues. Pepper first looks for Lucinda in a comedy club headlined by Roscoe Pope, associate of Zippo and Lucinda’s former boyfriend. Pope cannot help Pepper locate Lucinda, but he claims that Lucinda might have gone to purchase valium from her one-time dealer Quincy. The two head to Quincy’s brownstone. They do not find Lucinda there, but Quincy tells Pepper that Lucinda owed money to local gangster Chink Montague. Pepper heads to a bar where he has been told he can find Montague, who reveals Lucinda’s real name and the name of the affluent Jersey suburb in which she’d grown up. With this information, Pepper locates Lucinda, and she willingly returns to Harlem with him. They finish filming, and the movie is released to mixed reviews. Nonetheless, Zippo is thrilled with his finished product, and as Part 2 ends, he is on his way to promote the film in France, where Blaxploitation films are in vogue.

Part 3 begins in 1976. Ray and his family are gathered at the Dumas Club in Harlem for a political fundraiser. Alexander Oakes, a childhood friend of Elizabeth’s and a prominent local politician, is running for the office of borough president. Unimpressed by Oakes’s swagger and speechifying, Ray leaves the event as soon as possible. He is more concerned with the rising number of arsons in the neighborhood, the most recent of which injured a young boy whose mother is one of Ray’s tenants. Ray hires Pepper to investigate the fires. Pepper visits the offices of the company that owned the recently torched building. Realizing the company is an obvious front, he moves on to Mose Hamilton, a former associate and recently paroled arsonist. Mose leads Pepper to another arsonist, Wilmer Byrd. Because Byrd has an alibi, Pepper’s search continues. His next contact, Leon Drake, also has an alibi, and he and the man come to blows. Leaving Drake’s, Pepper is knocked out cold on the street. He convalesces at the Carney home on Striver’s Row.

Meanwhile, Ray learns that arson in Harlem is not the work of individual criminals. Rather, it is part of a widespread network of corruption. Building owners, city officials, contractors, and others stand to benefit financially from urban-renewal funding that is available for the development of new properties. Because real estate is limited in the city, “new” properties are often the spaces left vacant by burned-out buildings. This kind of organized crime leads to urban blight, redlining, and a decline in available housing and neighborhood jobs.

During Pepper’s search, Ray’s store is firebombed. Ultimately, Ray and Pepper learn that Alexander Oakes is one of the individuals responsible for organized arson in Harlem. The two meet Oakes, along with several of his men at the Dumas Club, after hours. Oakes describes the arson scheme in greater detail, a shootout occurs during which Oakes is killed, and Leon Drakes burns down the Dumas Club. Ray and Pepper escape, and the novel ends with Ray’s plans to rebuild and expand his store.

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