The Big Crowd by Kevin Baker – published in 2013 is a historical novel set in New York City in the period just before and after World War II. It combines real and fictional characters. The main character is the flamboyant mayor Charlie O’Kane. He is closely based on the real-life William O’Dwyer who was New York City’s last Irish born mayor.
The book accurately portrays the energy and contrasts of New York at that time. Right after World War II, the Mayor of New York was theoretically the most powerful person in the most powerful city in the most powerful country on Earth. But despite the supposed power, this was a time when the city was also run behind the scenes by other groups of men. Union bosses, mobsters, and policemen with their own agendas all vie for power against the likes of the real estate developer Robert Moses and Catholic Cardinal Spellman.
The book is told mostly from the perspective of Tom O’Kane the mayor’s brother. Tom loves his brother, but is concerned with the people who seem to be getting left behind in the great city’s progress. The longshoremen, the Negro population, the people in the Bronx who happen to be living where the new highways are going all have no place in the New York of the future.
The book contrasts Tom, who cares deeply about the underclasses, but can never do much for them, with the mayor, who argues that to make a change you first need to get the power, and to do that you have to make deals with a lot of different devils.
The author states that, “my goal was to depict New York in all the gaudy glory of its postwar heyday, and to sift to the bottom of what today remains some of its worst and mysterious public scandals.” In this well written riveting tale of New York, he has succeeded.