Chunks of it fell away...half a skeleton still wrapped in scraps of clothing, and a skull grinning obscenely down at them. The image of a "disappeared" mobster and his buddies being exhumed by a steam shovel in a farmer's field is one of many cinematic clips that will stick in your mind after reading this complicated, vibrant story of crime and punishment in old New York.
The book is loosely based on the mob domination and political corruption that plagued the Big Apple in the mid-1900s and
on unforgettable William O'Dwyer, an impoverished Irish immigrant who became the city's mayor then lost his credibility when investigations revealed his slimy connections to the underworld. Like O'Dwyer, the novel's Charlie O'Kane is the ward heeler's darling, a supposedly up-and-up city official, a general in the US Army, and towards the end of his questionable career, US Ambassador to Mexico. O'Dwyer was married for a time to Sloan Simpson, a svelte young model (named Slim Sadler in the novel), and he had a younger brother with a penchant for politics, the protagonist here named Tom O'Kane.
Following his much older brother out of County Mayo and into the heart of the city that never sleeps in the tempestuous 1940s, Tom idolizes Charlie, who has followed a trajectory from dock-worker to cop to judge. Tom quickly becomes embroiled in Charlie's turf wars. There are shady goons and gonzos around every corner, and the cast of characters becomes almost too large to keep track of at times as Tom, an idealist but not a saint (he has an affair with Slim), tries to keep his own nose clean and convince himself that his brother is the hero he wants him to be.
The eponymous "big crowd" consists of lawless louts, losers, and some bigger than life bigwigs and bishops that Baker pulls out of his writerly hat with a magician's dexterity. Tom is the starry-eyed but savvy younger brother, Charlie the fatherly, friendly-scary vote-getter, Slim the burnt-out but alluring vamp. Basing his book on real events gives the author a lot of color and drama to build on, while the departures from the facts, retrospective conjectures about a famous murder and some made-up romance, keep the reader who just likes a good yarn from the feeling of being sucked in to a mere "docu-drama." The perfidies of the mob are well drawn, indeed underscored, but just as plain is the evil that happens when good men look the other way. In the end, Tom manages to keep most of his morality intact, and it's possible Slim will see things his way.