The novel succeeds in creating a compelling imagined world. Most of the telling is through dialogue, and Baker’s re-creation of the cadences and diction of another time is impressive. Charlie is described as “a jake guy,” while Toots Shor says of a bet he’d like to make, “I could use the kale.” In anger, Tom barks “Nuts,” rather than the coarser language of today. And the hit men have the colorful nicknames of bygone times: Kid Twist, Cockeye Dunn, Tick-Tock Tannenbaum.
Best of all, the novel delivers on what the title promises, a detailed rendering of the relationships within that era’s power cabal. “A city like New York,” Charlie tells Tom, “it’s got to have great men — not good men — to run it. . . . We’re held together against the chaos by the grip of a few strong men, that’s all.” Baker offers a vast array of secondary characters — cops and thugs, politicians, bureaucrats, clergymen, bosses and hangers-on — who grow increasingly vivid as they appear and reappear in the gradual recounting of various incidents, like the murder of Peter Panto, an upstart organizer on the docks. Actual historical figures, including Robert Moses and Cardinal Spellman, are served up unsparingly.
I’ve read few other novels that portray in such a nuanced way the temptations of power, the complex division of control in a great metropolis and the perils of political deal-making in that environment. Baker doesn’t like the Big Crowd any more than Tom O’Kane does, but, fortunately for us, he understands its workings very well.
[Photo Credit: Mark Nadir]