The garment industry of the 1920s and 1930s in New York City is the setting for this suspenseful family story of three brothers working their way out of the tragedies and poverty of their Jewish Lower East Side boyhoods. The story centers around Morris, the scrappiest of the three, whose confrontations with bullying boys of his neighborhood grows into more deadly encounters with them as notorious members of Murder Incorporated. Brother Sol goes into business with Morris, but Harry flounders and becomes a mob hanger-on, then driver. Morris finds love uptown and grows a family of his own and a business in ladies’ coats and furs. With success comes mob-controlled union pressure. When Morris stands up to threats, he finds his life and business in danger. The law, in the person of Thomas Dewey himself, comes calling to enlist Morris’s help in bringing down the mob.
The strength of this suspenseful novel lies in its dark humor and characterizations of the brothers. Unfortunately, their mother, Morris’s wife Ruthie, and his sisters are not as well drawn and serve the story more as archetypical objects of affection. The dialogue is spot-on, if overwritten. The sometimes gritty, sometimes swanky settings of Button Man bring a tumultuous time and place to brimming life.