REVIEW: SCARFACE AND THE UNTOUCHABLE: AL CAPONE, ELIOT NESS, AND THE BATTLE FOR CHICAGO

Max Allan Collins appears to have an obsession with Eliot Ness, the leader of the famed Untouchables who went after Al Capone’s bootlegging operation. In his historical novels featuring Nate Heller, he served as the detective’s police contact. He wrote four novels about his post Chicago career, cleaning up Cleveland as it’s safety director. He wrote a play, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life and even wrote a comic where he teamed up with Batman, Scar Of The Bat. All of this work seems to have led to Collins’ first major non-fiction book he has teamed up with historian A. Brad Schwartz to write, Scarface and The Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago.

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago Cover ImageThe book works as two biographies, starting with Capone. The son of an Italian immigrant, a Brooklyn street kid, he forms a gang with his brothers to survive. This leads to him hustling for the mafia, who sends him out to Chicago where he works under Johnny Torrio. He takes over, muscling in on the South Side Irish mob led by Dean O’Banion. Taking advantage of prohibition early, he builds a street empire and practically runs the city.

Another son of immigrants (Swedish), Eliot Ness grows up in his family’s bread business in the Chicago suburb of Kensington. He finds a hero in his brother-in-law Alexander Jamie, an investigator who goes from Pullman Company, FBI, to becoming an executive in the Treasury Department. Ness disappoints his family, by dropping out of college and working for Jamie. He builds a reputation, mainly due to a painstaking operation in The Heights.

The two only see each other once, but find themselves at war on Chicago’s streets. Capone and his war with rival mobs makes the town look like wild west’s Dodge City with its gun battles, except those outlaws didn’t pack the firepower of Tommy guns. The political machine greased by underworld bribes looks the other way. Then the murder of newspaper man Jake Lingle and the infamous mob execution known as The St. Valentines Day Massacre shock the city into action. A group of businessmen known as the Secret Six devise a plan to bring down Capone. Part of it involves an elite squad of federal agents to hit Capone financially by raiding and destroying his liquor facilities. Eliot Ness heads up the unit. Soon their exploits and reputation for refusing bribes earns them the name The Untouchables.

As the stories of Capone and Ness converge in their battle, Callins and Schwartz create a character out of the city of Chicago. They depict it as a loud, colorful, and dangerous town populated by citizens fathered by Damon Runyon and hardworking folks caught in the crossfire. The place forms Capone and Ness and the two contribute to its character as they fight for it. Of the three, the city has the most dramatic character arc as the other two battle for its soul.

The authors give us an engaging look at Eliot Ness and Al Capone. They begin by drawing out comparisons of the two; both sons of immigrant bakers, young, ambitious, and even living on the same street at one time. They study the duality of Capone, who courted the media, coming off gregarious and charming, but who also had fits of rage, calculated rub outs, and bludgeoned to death a traitor with a baseball bat. They show how these opposing traits converged to make him the criminal he was. Ness proves to be the less flashy and more straight forward, but proves to have as many struggles with the politics of law enforcement as Capone did with the infighting in his organization.

Scarface and the Untouchable is true crime written like an epic pulp novel. It has a Michener sweep , but instead of God’s eye, the view is gutter level. Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz turn Chicago into a battleground for the famed lawman and gangster, proving the city to be the true survivor.

 

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