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The Big Crowd Hardcover – September 17, 2013

3.9 out of 5 stars 64 customer reviews

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Top Ten New York City Mob Movies

Ranked by Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd

Kevin Baker

1. (tie) The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974). This is like choosing between the Mona Lisa and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Both are perfect in their own way—even if they do perpetuate the myth that the mafia often operated as a sort of cross between a settlement house and Tammany Hall. Both are also two of the best examples—maybe the two best examples—of historical fiction in American cinema. The personal relationships, the language, the clothes—nearly all of it is spot on. More than all that, it looks right, thanks to both the fact that so much of the old New York was still standing at the time . . . and the fact that Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant cinematographer, Gordon Willis, was burning a substance known as “Fuller’s earth” to capture the grimy look of industrial-age America. Don’t expect to see it again anytime soon. The burning of Fuller’s earth in movie-making is no longer allowed, thanks to its toxic qualities. Well, we all must make some sacrifices for art...

2. On the Waterfront (1954). Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg rip the cover off the waterfront rackets, in a gritty drama that has outlived the authors’ odious, pro-McCarthyist subtext. Shot largely on location in Hoboken, it’s highly accurate in detailing how the longshoremen of New York Harbor were brutally exploited by both the bosses and their own mobbed-up union. Readers of The Big Crowd will get the whole behind the scenes story of the mob rackets that ran the docks and the brave men and women who fought them.

3. Mean Streets (1973). For all of its operatic trappings, Martin Scorsese rips the glamour off the mob, taking it back down to a group of tragicomic, petty criminals, hustling the streets of Greenwich Village and going nowhere. A terrific look at the New York of the 1970s, as well as the bottom level of the mafia.

4. Goodfellas (1990). And here is Scorsese’s bookend: his brilliant adaptation of Henry Hill’s confession via Nicholas Pileggi. The characters we see here are considerably bigger time, the city often more glamorous. But the aimlessness, the viciousness, and the despair oozes out of every scene. Another chapter in that continuing lesson, “The mafia is not your friend.”

5. Force of Evil (1948). Terrific piece of film noir, with many exteriors shot on location in a beautifully stark, black-and-white New York. At its heart is a brothers story, starring the inimitable John Garfield as a crooked mob lawyer and Thomas Gomez as the head of a small-time numbers, or “policy,” racket. It was no doubt many Americans’ introduction to policy, the big city’s homemade, nickel lottery of the time, and a source of much of the mob’s wealth.

6. Donnie Brasco (1997). How can we possibly overlook the movie that brought “Fuhgeddaboutit!” into the common parlance? Wonderfully acted and directed, this true-life story of an undercover cop crackles with tension and the brutality of actual mob life.

7. The French Connection (1971). A great movie that is not ranked higher only because a good part of it is less a “mob” movie than an “international heist” movie or a “cop buddies” movie. Nonetheless, it’s an indelible look at the ragged New York of the time. Taut, often funny, and thoroughly entertaining.

8. The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984). Here again is the less-than-heroic, back end of the mob, albeit with plenty of dark humor. Lots of fun—and very much about the New York of the 1970s and ’80s, as well as its decaying mob culture.

9. Once Upon a Time in America (1984). It’s hard to actually call this a good movie. It’s much too long, the plot is ludicrous, and it’s full of the usual Sergio Leone affectations... Leone never really understood much about America or American history, preferring usually to see it through a scrim of condescending, pseudo-intellectual European academic theory. But the first half of the film, set mostly in the 1920s and ’30s, does a beautiful job of showing us life in the Lower East Side slums. It’s worthwhile for that alone.

10. The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). This is a D.W. Griffith silent and only 17 minutes long. I include it as the start of a genre; probably the first mob movie ever made, and certainly the first of any note in New York. It also takes a game stab at depicting Lower East Side street life and generally succeeds. In this, it is obviously inspired by the iconic photographs of Jacob Riis, thereby linking Hollywood to this earlier, vital look into immigrant life.

Honorable mention: There are so many other great candidates, many of which didn’t make it because they really fit better into another genre. Prince of the City, for instance, is really more of a film about corrupt cops, while Gangs of New York is more of an immigrant story—and much the same can be said for James Gray’s brilliantly evocative Little Odessa and We Own the Night. But I’m happy to hear anyone’s suggestions.

From Booklist

Baker takes an all-but-forgotten crime—the William O’Dwyer case—and builds a novel as big and as blustery as the city it portrays. This sprawling saga traces the spectacular rise and fall of two Irish immigrant brothers during the course of the first half of the twentieth century. Charlie O’Kane works his way up from beat cop to mayor of New York to ambassador to Mexico, with his life trajectory embodying all the characteristic elements of the ultimate American success story. Revered by his younger brother, Tom, who follows him into the law profession, Charlie symbolizes all that is good and bad in an era dominated by both incredible opportunities and deep-seated corruption. Navigating Tammany Hall politics, the crime syndicate, and high society can be tricky, but just how far did Charlie go to satisfy his ever-increasing ambitions? That’s what Tom sets out to find out as he attempts to clear his brother’s good name after he is implicated in a Mob murder. The deeper he digs, the more he learns about both the ties that bind and the bonds that can be broken. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Baker (Dreamland, Paradise Alley, Strivers Row) takes another juicy bite out of the Big Apple, demonstrating once again that nobody does old New York—in all its glamour and its grit—better. --Margaret Flanagan

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (September 17, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 061885990X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618859900
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,044,086 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Barbara J. Mitchell VINE VOICE on August 23, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This new novel by Kevin Baker has all the ingredients for a blockbuster novel. There are two Irish brothers who have come to America seeking success with all the perks that come with it. One is middle-aged and jaded by his run to the top in New York City, the other young and full of ambition and naivete. The O'Kane brothers, Charlie and Tom, take similar paths but with radically different moral choices.

Charlie, the elder brother, becomes the District Attorney and then mayor of the city. He must, therefore, deal with the corruption, the mob bosses, the unions, and at the same time face the lingering death of his beloved wife. His second wife, Slim, is a gorgeous model much younger than Charlie and his marriage to her will change his life and his choices in many ways.

Tom also works his way up as an attorney and is always judged by his brother's success. He ends up working for D.A. Hogan investigating an intriguingly suspicious murder that happened when Charlie was mayor. A killer-for-hire is under guard in a seedy motel and telling where the bodies are - literally - when he goes out the window and dies. It looks like an attempted escape.

Meanwhile we are titillated by Tom's affair with Slim, his guilt over said affair knowing that Charlie is besotted with the woman, and Tom's growing love for another woman.

Sounds good, doesn't it? The problem is that the story is told in a jumbled fashion, jumping from 1939 to 1953 to 1945, and from New York to Mexico and back. There are so many characters you need to remember I should have made a list.
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We've waited much too long for one of Baker's New York City historical novels. There is no one better at this sadly neglected genre. In the Big Crowd he has deconstructed a long forgotten but pivotal gangland crime and rebuilds it into a lesson on how we got from then to now. Along with endless layers of intrigue Baker populates it with a cast of fascinating and gritty characters. What makes it even more special is that these characters are based on real life New Yorkers. Having read all of his previous works I recognize the dogged research Baker puts into letting these characters live again so realistically. He's a master at letting them speak with voices echoing every nuance and flavor of their times. HBO's Boardwalk Empire speaks with that flavor, but it's so lacking in historical truth.
If only HBO made a series based on Baker's works.
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Format: Hardcover
Abe Reles, one of most vicious hit men from the Brownsville gang; Murder Inc, has just been launched out of a Coney Island hotel window. Such news might normally be hailed as a triumph for the police department. The problem is that Abe Reles was thrown out of the window while under police protection and no one has answers, the press gets a whiff of it, and head start to roll. --- This murder mystery alone can carry The Big Crowd on it's shoulders as it speed walks through the pages to uncover who done it.

Fortunately for the reader, Kevin Baker digs much deeper in to the story.-- Fresh off the boat from Bohola, Ireland, the O'Kane brothers navigate New York with a quick eye for the injustice that plagues the city's workers, immigrants, and unions. "The Big Crowd" of mob enforcers on the waterfront, crocked beat cops, politicians, and city developers all splitting up New York like an apple pie.

Little brother Tom O'Kane keeps his eyes open with a moral 20/20 vision. His older brother Charlie, all charm and charisma, is willing to dip a few fingers into the different dishes of power. Charlie works his way up the later from policeman, to D.A. and eventually becomes Mayor. Due to poor health, Charlie moves to Mexico City; a booming city in it's own right, on the path to becoming the huge urban sprawl we know today.

The murder of Abe Reles comes back to haunt Charlie when the Kefauver hearings get under way. Tom is determined to clear Charlie's name, but the deeper he digs the more the image of his glorified older brother begins to tear.

With apparent relentless research, Kevin Baker has pieced together not only a murder mystery, but an great american novel.
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There is no doubt in my mind that Kevin Baker is on the shortlist of best writers in America. He is no less valued as an historian. "The Big Crowd," of course, is character driven - how could it be otherwise for such an author/historian? "The Big Crowd" is a story of New York City's criminal underworld in the first half of the twentieth century - including most of the famous thugs in that dark history. Like passing an auto accident, you'll learn things you'd just as soon not know. BUT like the auto accident example, you won't be able to resist every ugly detail of the murder, the mugging, the beating.

"The Big Crowd" is also the story of a family, two brothers, Tom and Charlie O'Kane. Cjharlie, a successful attorney, also serves as mouthpiece for the unsavory gangland characters to the point of himself being involved enough to be investigated in a murder case. His younger brother, Tom, wants to clear his brother's name and in the process falls in love with Charlie's wife. Even more complex, the scene of these goings on move from New York to Acapulco and Mexico City. No one lacking talent as sure as author Kevin Baker's could have brought to life this complicated narrative with its many back stories.

The following examples of this engaging prose offer a sample of what the book has in store for you:

"Things were running well then, the City humming along. Growing steadily fatter, richer, higher, than he had ever seen it. Tom had noticed that most of the hard-eyed men back from the war were gone - including himself. .."

" ... along Manhattan's great avenues the women shop like stalking tigresses, they dress like foreign spies, and they strut like courtesan ..."

"... A city with 150,000 municipal workers.
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