MINM Book Review: Button Man by Andrew Gross

Button Man by Andrew Gross is a semi-biographical account of the Jewish immigrant and first generation experience in America in the early 1900s, as well as a classic tale of the forces of good against evil. This historical novel of suspense takes the reader on the life journey of Morris Rabishevsky, a character based, with some embellishment, upon the life of Mr. Gross’s own grandfather. With Jewish cultural traditions and translated Yiddish sprinkled throughout, we go from Morris’s early and humble beginnings in his family’s overcrowded, Lower East Side tenement, to his need to leave school at only age twelve to navigate the mean streets and go to work to help support his mother, his siblings, and himself after his father dies, to the hard work, determination, and chutzpah that helped him escape poverty, and go “from rags to riches”.

Morris’s ambition, drive, and savvy enabled him to eventually own his own garment business, despite his lack of a formal education beyond the sixth grade. Yet some of Morris’s Lower East Side peers took a very different path in life. Beginning in the late 1920s, they organized criminal syndicates that coerced, racketeered, and generally terrorized those that did not “play by their rules” in many New York industries, including within the garment industry.

Button Man - an ingenious title with the dual references to both a killer for hire, as well as to the book’s protagonist as a man of the clothing industry - is a highly atmospheric story, filled with the smoky speakeasies of the Prohibition era, as well as many prominent figures of the time, such as movie producer Samuel Goldwyn, Yankee luminary Babe Ruth, musician Al Jolson, comedian Jack Benny, and even actual gangsters of the period like Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. Given that the main thrust of the novel involves the mob, Button Man’s unflinching cruelty can shock at times, and its language can sometimes be authentically pejorative. But it is the poignancy of Morris’s relationship with one of his brothers, a brother whose sense of self-worth suffered, and who was never quite able to shake himself free from a traumatic childhood event, that effected this reader most profoundly.

Andrew Gross’s homage to his grandfather is a period piece with heart-tugging emotion, gripping suspense, a surprising twist, and a wonderful sense of place (even if the place at that time wasn’t always so wonderful for everyone). Button Man reminds us that acts of courage by even just “a few good men”, and standing up for what is right, can often make a difference of lasting and positive change for many.

Button Man by Andrew Gross book cover image.jpg

Best for Crime Fiction Readers:

  • Who enjoy reading historical mysteries and thrillers.

  • Who are interested in the American immigrant experience, specifically that of Jewish immigrants in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century.

  • Who enjoy reading about (federal) police procedure.

  • Who appreciate nostalgic, coming-of-age, boy-to-manhood stories in their crime fiction.

  • Who appreciate a main character that the reader can root for!

  • Fans of hard-boiled crime fiction will find much to enjoy in Button Man.

    Pages: 384 (Hardcover)

Publisher’s Blurb:

Following up The One Man and The Saboteur, Gross's next historical thriller brings to life the drama of the birth of organized crime in 1930s New York City from the tale of one family.

After a string of New York Times bestselling suburban thrillers, Andrew Gross has reinvented himself as a writer of historical thrillers. In his latest novel, Button Man, he delivers a stirring story of a Jewish family brought together in the dawn of the women's garment business and torn apart by the birth of organized crime in New York City in the 1930s.

Morris, Sol, and Harry Rabishevsky grew up poor and rough in a tiny flat on the Lower East Side, until the death of their father thrust them into having to fend for themselves and support their large family. Morris, the youngest, dropped out of school at twelve years old and apprenticed himself to a garment cutter in a clothing factory; Sol headed to accounting school; but Harry, scarred by a family tragedy, fell in with a gang of thugs as a teenager. Morris steadily climbs through the ranks at the factory until at twenty-one he finally goes out on his own, convincing Sol to come work with him. But Harry can't be lured away from the glamour, the power, and the money that come from his association with Louis Buchalter, whom Morris has battled with since his youth and who has risen to become the most ruthless mobster in New York. And when Buchalter sets his sights on the unions that staff the garment makers' factories, a fatal showdown is inevitable, pitting brother against brother.

This new novel is equal parts historical thriller, rich with the detail of a vibrant New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, and family saga, based on Andrew Gross's own family story and on the history of the era, complete with appearances by real-life characters like mobsters Louis Lepke and Dutch Schultz and special prosecutor Thomas Dewey, and cements Gross's reputation as today's most atmospheric and original historical thriller writer.

MINM Overall Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

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