… Doesn’t it always seem that’s how it is, Tom? We lie the most to those nearest to us, and why is that? — The Big Crowd, chapter 19.

There’s a scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit that I promise is relevant here:

Judge Doom: A few weeks ago I had the good providence to stumble upon a plan of the city council. A construction plan of epic proportions. We’re calling it a freeway.

Eddie Valiant: Freeway? What the hell’s a freeway?

Judge Doom: Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena. Smooth, safe, fast. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past.

Eddie Valiant: So that’s why you killed Acme and Maroon? For this freeway? I don’t get it.

Judge Doom: Of course not. You lack vision, but I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off, off and on all day, all night. Soon, where Toon Town once stood will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food. Tire salons, automobile dealerships and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it’ll be beautiful.

big crowdTo us jaded, contemporary Americans this bit is funny because we know there are, for most of the country, no public trams in living memory and nearly everyone is forced to suffer the six-lane traffic snarls at some point, and some of us even admit to ourselves that the auto-centric way of life ruined our cities, is probably killing us all and that there really was a far less funny conspiracy to devalue light rail in favor of, as J.H. Kunstler puts it, happy motoring.

The Big Crowd features a number of moments like that, except they aren’t played for laughs. The book is salted with little scenes and exchanges concerned with twentieth century trends—the Kefauver hearings, the ascent of television, the decline of American Catholicism, the commercialization of air travel, the viability of labor unions, John Wayne’s wives, shipping containers, and, yes, the laying of freeways through neighborhoods—which, taken together, inject a sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge authorial anachronistic intrusion that makes the book hard to accept as a serious historical novel. A common trope in science-fiction criticism that sci-fi isn’t really about what could happen in the future, but is instead authorial commentary on whatever is happening now. I’d posit that the same is true of historical fiction, with the added issue that readers will already be predisposed to view past events with an intransigent contemporary mindset. An author blatantly adding this commentary just makes the distraction worse.

Though an extended distraction, rather than a serious historical piece, might be just what Baker has in mind with The Big Crowd, as the book is almost platonically perfectly structured for long-form television. The story—a fictionalization of the careers of William and Paul O’Dwyer (the 100th mayor of New York City and his progressive politician brother) and their involvement in the Murder, Inc. mob trials in the 1940s—could be pitched as a sort of spiritual successor to Boardwalk Empire. It has an episodic framing situation set in 1953 Mexico City (with little hints of Under the Volcano in there, I do believe). It has the overarching mystery: the murder of rat-fink Abe Reles, the key clue in flashback, revisited again and again like a leitmotif. It has the love triangle between the brothers and the golden starlet, and the redemptive love for the younger brother back in New York (as with most commercial storytelling in our culture, the tale is all about the men; women invariably take the back seat in these epics, which gets so boring). There are the occasional melodramatic outbursts, one or two cases of overdone stage direction on Baker’s part, and tidy (if not always just) resolutions to the story’s central problems.

If you’re looking for a drama fix in between binge viewing of whatever show is streaming into your living room, The Big Crowd is probably your kind of thing. Read it now before AMC adapts it into something less interesting.