Mysterious Book Report The Big CrowdThe Big Crowd by Kevin Baker

Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, $27.00, 424 pages, ISBN 978-0-618-85990-0

The Mysterious Book Report has long been an ardent and enthusiastic promoter of the classic black and white noir movies made in the golden age of film during the 1930s, 40s and 50s.  They are, in fact, the very definition of the French word noir, meaning ‘black film’, which has been assimilated into English as: A style of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism and menace.  The term was originally applied to American thriller or detective films made in the period 1944-54 by such directors as Orson Wells, Fritz Lang and Billy Winder, according to my Oxford Dictionary.  I’d add the name Elia Kazan who directed the 1954 masterpiece, On the Waterfront, starring among others, Karl Malden, Eva-Marie Saint and a brooding newcomer by the name of Marlon Brando, whose immortal line “I coudda been a contender,” still resonates and is often quoted today.  This is the sixtieth anniversary of the film, a perennial topper of the 100 best movies list.

MBR Number 157 revisits the dramatic fight for justice, equality and the honest unionization of the longshoreman who worked on New York City’s docks during the 1940s and ’50s . . . by wrestling control of the unions away from the grip of organized crime, in a novel by one of America’s preeminent writer’s of historical fiction.

The Big Crowd, by Kevin Baker is the story of two Irish immigrants, brothers Tom and Charlie O’Kane, who go from the gangland waterfront to the halls of power in NYC’s Gracie Mansion.  Interspersed with the locked room murder of a mobster turned rat is the backstory of a torturous three-way love affair that pits brother against brother for the affections of a rich, beautiful and spoiled society woman.  The novel unfolds in a series of flashbacks that expose the reader to the inner workings of the Italian and Jewish mobs of the 1940s in the gang-dominated trade unions, as a crusading Manhattan District Attorney takes on the organization known as Murder Incorporated.  There are mentions of the Sullivan County Catskill hotel scene, the Loch Sheldrake body disposal site and gangsters like Albert Anastasia, aka the Lord High Executioner, Cockeye Dunn, Pittsburgh Phil Reyes and Tick-Tock Tannenbaum.  The reader will also learn the definition of terms like, “the shape-up, shlammers, shtarkers and a pistol local.”  Mr. Baker has crafted a thoughtful, well-written and researched novel that’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.  If you liked the movie, you’ll love the book.  I certainly did.


John Dwaine McKenna