Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Have You Checked Out BUTTON MAN?

Andrew Gross's new historical thriller BUTTON MAN from Minotaur Books hit stores last month.

Following up The One Man and The Saboteur, Andrew's latest 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 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'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 Andrew's reputation as today's most atmospheric and original historical thriller writer.

Please join me now as Andrew answers some questions about BUTTON MAN. Welcome Andrew.

BUTTON MAN is semi-autobiographical. Tell us a little bit about your family story behind the novel and why you felt the need to share it in your fiction.

BUTTON MAN is the story of one of 20-million immigrants to come to New York between 18801910, who rose up from the Lower East Side, with only a sixth-grade education to apprentice in a garment factory; was running that factory by the time he was twenty, left to start his own firm and was forced to go head-to-head against the most notorious mobsters of that time, Murder Incorporated, who had taken over the garment unions for their own gain, and who ended up building that firm into a national brand.

That man was my grandfather.

So, yes, there is a lot of personal history and family lore in BUTTON MAN. Not to mention, I spent twenty years in that firm myself (called Leslie Fay) before I ever made the move to writing. So, I know the industry and I know the family stories. And these are great, first generational stories that it's become my proudest role as an author to tell. It kind of goes back to the tradition of what oral storytelling is about. With a little suspense added to the mix.

Are your relatives from this era still alive? Was their history and their rise through the garment industry a big art of your family tapestry and openly discussed over the years? Or did your story require some family research in order to tell?

The backdrop to BUTTON MAN is the early years of the women’s garment business, which was a time of risk, crime, and retribution as it was also the birth of organized crime in New York. Much of that crime then was Jewish. And the two businesses interacted in crime—including union tampering, extortion, witness intimidation, and murder. I grew up with these stories and knew many of the players who were older men when I was young—those who survived, anyway.

The most interesting and emotional research I did was at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. The head of the archives there, after providing me tons of microfilm of ancient copies of Women’s Wear Daily, etc., told me that many of the founding fathers of the industry had made oral tapes of their early years that were part of the permanent archives—my grandfather among them. “Would I like to hear it,” he asked. Would I?! That’s how, 36 years after he died, I listened to my grandfather’s voice all over again, and the nuances of the way he spoke, telling the same tales I was putting into my book. As you might imagine, it made me cry.

BUTTON MAN features many real-life characters from 30s-era New York. Why did you decide to weave real people into this fictional account? How did you balance fact and fiction?

Well, it's the story of a time and an industry, as well as a suspense story, so as with Ragtime, I wanted to weave it around real figures who affected that era. My grandfather was stabbed by Louis Lepke's (head of Murder, Inc.)'s henchman, so I was definitely going to include him. And Dutch Schultz and Albert Anastasia, they were a big part of it too. It also widened to include Thomas Dewey, who was prosecuting them. So, the whole story is a pastiche of the times then in the 1930's in NYC. I think the best compliment I’ve received so far is how I've blended real and fictional characters seamlessly enough that it's hard to tell the difference. And I think I make clear in the book, what is true and what is not.

Did you already know a lot about these mafia figures and their rise before writing BUTTON MAN? What was your research process like? 

Yes, I knew the stories of many of these criminals. Lepke, Gurrah, Dutch Schutlz, Albert Anastasia. I knew a little about Murder, Incorporated, founded by Lepke and Meyer Lansky. What most people don't know is that the Jewish mob was even more violent than the Italian mob back then. In fact, the Italians generally outsourced their hits to the Jews—hence, Murder, Inc. Murder for hire. For Jews on the Lower East Side, there were generally two ways out—two businesses open to them: one was the garment trade, as anyone could get into it if you worked hard enough. The other was crime. A “button man” for those who don't know it, was 30's slang for a mob hitman. So, for many, I think this will be an eye-opening story into the Jewish mob, something most people don't know a lot about. And into the people who stood up against them and put their lives on the line.

BUTTON MAN shows the juxtaposition of the gritty working class Lower East Side with the glitzy upper-class midtown of the early 1900’s and 1930’s. How were you able to bring this vintage New York City setting to life so vividly?

The dichotomy between the Lower East Side Jews—Polish, Russian and Hungarian—and the Uptown Jews—mostly German, who blended into American life and society more easily, is one of the themes of the book. My grandfather, with his gruff, street-honed way of talking, wooed and married a society Austrian Jewish girl who was his opposite in many ways. But the uptown nightlife of clubs and speakeasys against the downtown world of factories and sweatshops, makes an interesting dichotomy, I think, of life and class struggle even within the Jewish community.

Great Expectations is referenced several times in BUTTON MAN and is a bit of a touchstone for the main character, Morris Raab, and his sweetheart, Ruthie. What are the similarities between the two novels? Was it a conscious effort on your part to weave a modern-day version of the Dickens classic?

Yes, I refer to the book as “Great Expectations meets The Godfather.” That's how I see it. BUTTON MAN is not a conventional thriller, which usually start with a crime or a mystery and then the narrative that follows is how to solve it. It's a bigger, over-arching story of manhood, the clash of brothers, betrayal, and redemption that uses suspense to advance the story. But it's the story, the life of the protagonist, that is important. So yes, Dickens’ Great Expectations, a rags-to-riches story of class struggle and identity is referred to many times, and I wrote the book in that spirit. But it’s also a story of crime and a crime family, so The Godfather plays in too.

What do you hope your readers take away from BUTTON MAN?

I hope readers take away a feeling for the times, for the industry, so different than the clothing business of today, for the struggle to make something of your life from nothing, and for the moral courage to stand up to overwhelming forces of evil trying to tear you down. In many
ways, these are themes and situations that will never be repeated—this first generational immigrant struggle in the United States. As I’ve said, I've grown to feel it's my duty to tell these stories, so rich in lore, humor, hard work, and moral clarity.

What’s next for you?

I'm halfway through a new story set in NYC in the year before WWII. It's set in Yorkville, on the Upper East Side, in a predominantly German neighborhood. What people don't remember from that time, is that in the conflict of whether to join the war or not, Nazism was openly tolerated and even supported here. Charles Lindbergh was a known Nazi sympathizer. Many in Congress were too and were ardently against the war. In 1938, 20,000 swastika-wearing supporters openly staged a raucous rally at Madison Square Garden. So, against this background, I'm writing the story of a young couple who move into townhouse in Yorkville and begin to feel that the kindly, older Swiss couple across the hall are really Nazi spies. This one's like a mix between early Hitchcock and Rosemary's Baby. I think it will be another different portrait of New York and America that few know much about.

PRAISE FOR Button Man:

Button Man is a compelling, fast paced historical thriller that paints a rich portrait of the rise of Jewish organized crime in 1930’s America. Fans of Boardwalk Empire and Dennis Lehane will love it.” ― Kristin Hannah, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale 
Button Man is a riveting piece of historical fiction, mixed with family saga, exposing the Jewish mob of the 1930's who preyed on the garment industry and the brave few who stood up against them. This book is a heart-stopper. I loved, LOVED it!” — Linda Fairstein, New York Times bestselling author of Deadfall and Terminal City
“A highly satisfying story of family loyalty, persistence, courage, and crime.” — Kirkus Reviews
“A gut-wrenching, noirish portrait of Jewish organized crime and labor unionism in 1930s New York…These are characters you won’t forget… Alternately frightful and fascinating, the story viscerally describes the era, exposing the motives and fears that drive each character and play out on the streets.” — Booklist (starred review)
          The strength of this suspenseful novel lies in its dark humor and characterizations of the brothers…The sometimes gritty, sometimes swanky settings of Button Man bring a tumultuous time and place to brimming life.” — Historical Novel Society 
“Andrew Gross is in top form with this beautifully haunting novel that mixes history seamlessly with fiction. Button Man is an epic journey of struggle, hope, death and life. Riveting to the very last page.” — NY Journal of Books

For those of you who are not familiar with Andrew, here’s a bit of background on him.

Author Andrew Gross
Andrew Gross is the author of the historical thrillers The One Man and The Saboteur, as well as the New York Times and international bestsellers The Blue ZoneDon't Look Twice, and The Dark Tide, which was nominated for the Best Thriller of the Year award by the International Thriller Writers, RecklessEyes Wide Open, and One Mile Under.

He is also coauthor of several number one bestsellers with James Patterson, including Judge & Jury and Lifeguard. He lives in Westchester County, New York, with his wife, Lynn.

For more on Andrew and his writing, connect with him on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Thanks everyone for stopping by today. Do you enjoy books more if there is a combination of fact and fiction in them or do you prefer just one way or the other?


  1. Andrew, your grandfather was an amazing man. That's awesome they had his voice in the archives. Congratulations on your latest release.

  2. Sounds like an interesting read. I always like to learn something even from a fictional book. The title reminds me of a button factory at the end of the street where I grew up in London. We were always finding discarded buttons without hole or imperfect ones on the pavement. Hope all is going well for you.


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