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Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is a critically acclaimed American author of eight novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2019). His latest work, Harlem Shuffle, set in the titular neighbourhood in the 1960s, is branded as a probing crime caper of ‘heists, shakedowns and rip-offs’. Whitehead’s previous novels are marked by nuanced commentary on race and power, yet, as Mindy Gill argues in her review, this dynamic threatens a tantalising foray into genre fiction: ‘What prevents Harlem Shuffle from being a convincing crime novel, then, is part of its broader failure: Whitehead’s reluctance to depart from rousing social messaging.’

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Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

October 2021, no. 436

Readers of Colson Whitehead’s two recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2019) – both historical literary novels focused on the Underground Railroad and the Jim Crow era, respectively – may be surprised by his eighth book, Harlem Shuffle, a crime novel written in the swaggering voice of a Quentin Tarantino character. Whitehead has always drawn on elements of genre fiction. His début, The Intuitionist (1999), borrows from sci-fi and speculative fiction to tell the story of Lila Mae Watson, America’s first Black female elevator inspector. Zone One (2011), an unexpected marriage of literary and post-apocalyptic zombie fiction, asks now-familiar questions about human perseverance and survival. Humour features strongly in these works, as do Whitehead’s deftness and apparent joy in making philosophical forays into genre fiction. Compared to the sweeping and more sombre nature of his most recent books, Harlem Shuffle is lighter fare.

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