(I wrote some of this offline in Word and in coming over the formatting got a little weird; I don't have the patience to track through it and figure out why. I think you can still pretty much read it.)
In a time not so long ago, but feels much longer, or maybe it actually is, I wrote a post filled with book reviews and mentioned a book that I had just started. I finished it a few weeks ago and now am just getting the chance to write more about it.
Big Trouble, by J. Anthony Lukas is ostensibly about the 1905 murder of a former Idaho governor, Frank Steunenberg, and the trial that followed. However, it's really about the battle between the powerful Western mine owners and the miners' unions, whose leaders were suspected of ordering the assassination of Steunenberg, who had given them trouble during his administration. That's what it was about on one level; taking it a step further, it's the story of a battle between the Big Guys (the mine owners) and the Little Guys/Working Stiffs (the miners and their unions), which Lukas sees as emblematic of the entire class struggle of turn of the century America between big business and the working class. Following me so far?
On the road to the trial, though, and through the end of the trial, Lukas gives you a history of not just the early 20th century West, not just the miners vs. the owners, not just small town politics, but also just about everything else that could even be tangentially connected to the events. Private detectives are brought onto the case. That leads to an explanation a brief history of police forces and the mistrust in them that fosters the need for private detectives; that in turn leads to the history of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The lead Pinkerton detective who heads the case also gets his own mini-biography, including his role in taking down the Molly Maguires, an Irish gang, hard and corrupt, that ruled over the mines in Pennsylvania. Of course, this also requires a history of the Molly Maguires, which means a history of Ireland… Okay, I’m kidding about the Ireland part, but all the rest is a fair description of how the book works. The murder takes place in a small Idaho town, so you don’t just get a description of the town, but how it was settled, how Idaho was settled, how the Pacific Northwest was settled. See what I mean?
Just about everyone involved in the story, even the most forgotten mining company aide, gets a thorough biography. The role of newspapers, newspaper publishers, and the various competing Socialist magazines are all examined. Competing evangelical churches in Brooklyn, bohemian life in Chicago, the difficulties of black soldiers before, during, and after the Civil War, Jewish immigrant life on the lower East Side, Chinese immigrant life in the West, all are discussed. Ethel Barrymore, at the time a young on-the-rise actress, came to the trial one day. This means you get a bio of Ethel Barrymore, a discussion of popular playwrights of the day, and an explanation of the evolution of traveling theater companies from independents to pawns of big syndicates that controlled a circuit of theaters (and yes, James O’Neil, Eugene’s actor father gets his own little story). The lawyers often spent their Sundays at minor league baseball games, so you get a description of minor league life in the early 20th century, including complete coverage of Walter Johnson’s career from his first appearance in a game in Southern California to his eventual departure for the big leagues (blow by blow accounts of games are included).
These last two are the digressions that wander the furthest off track. You could make an argument that they belong to the fabric of the story; the story of the theater’s takeover by monopolies fits with the labor vs. big business theme of the story. Maybe you could say that the fighting and corruption of the minor-league baseball teams is a parallel to the infighting and corruption of the small towns of the West. However, you can’t argue that the book would get on just as well without them.
Would it be a better book, though, without all these side stories? What if it had stuck only to the investigation of the murder and the trial? What if we had only learned about Bill Haywood and Clarence Darrow and not about Ethel Barrymore and Walter Johnson? What if it had only covered the jury selection process and the banks that financed the trial, and not the labor day parades and the rise of the tabloid newspapers? I probably would have still enjoyed it, but I would not have enjoyed it as much as I did without all these other pieces that led me to other places and times and people and ideas. If you’re looking for a tight, fast-paced, book about a murder and a trial, Big Trouble will probably frustrate you; if you have the time and the patience to be immersed in all these other worlds, though, I think you’ll like it.