INTERVIEW WITH MAX ALLAN COLLINS

Max Allan Collins is probably the crime fiction author who has had the most impact on me. In my teens I discovered his private eye Nate Heller and was hooked. In following his work, a real life character pops up through the years, famed Untouchable Eliot Ness. It came as little surprise he wrote a biography about the federal agent and his fight with Capone along with historian A. Brad Schwartz, Scarface and the Untouchable:  Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago. It was great honor to talk to one of my heroes about one of his.

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: You’ve used Eliot Ness in your fiction for over three decades and wrote and produced a play about him. What draws you to him?

Max Allan Collins: As a kid I saw the original Desilu Playhouse production of “The Untouchables” with Robert Stack, which led to the TV series.  I was a huge fan of the show and fascinated by the basis in history, although as we know the series played fast and loose. I was already a Dick Tracy fan, and Ness seemed to be a real-life Tracy. Years later I would discover that Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, actually based Tracy on Ness and the Untouchables.  My Nathan Heller private eye novels, which are fact-based and set in Chicago, seemed to cry out for Ness to be my PI’s police contact. After his appearances in the Heller series, Ness starred in four books I did about the Untouchable’s Cleveland years, as well as comics appearances in Road to Perdition and a Batman graphic novel, Scar of the Bat.  I intended the play to be my last word on the subject…until my co-author came along.

MPS: Prohibition era Chicago is one of those places and times that are iconic in our history and captures our imagination, like 1870s Dodge City and San Francisco in the sixties. What is do you think the appeal is?

MAC: It was a specific time — like the Old West, it didn’t last long — and the misguided social experiment of Prohibition led to a wild period in which criminals often became anti-heroes and the public was largely in on the law-breaking, by way of ignoring the 18th amendment.

MPS: What the book reminded me is how young both Capone and Ness were when they started out. Do you think their youth helped define the kind of gangster and lawman they were?

MAC: I do, and that aspect of their combined story has always fascinated me — particularly since Hollywood traditionally cast much older actors in the roles.  My co-author, A. Brad Schwartz — who is a Princeton history major in the doctorate program — is about the same age as Ness when he took Capone on.

MPS: Did you learn anything about the two in working on the book that surprised you?

MAC: The similarities were striking — immigrants with fathers who had made good, honest lives.  But also there were the fun facts, like straight-arrow Ness lying about his age to land a federal job, and Capone and Ness living on the same Chicago street for many years.

MPS: There have been several books on Capone. Was their a certain way Mr. Schwartz and you wanted to approach him for yours?

MAC: Not to disparage all of the books, but many were weak or poorly researched, particularly where Eliot Ness is concerned.  Authors seemed to love taking Ness down a bunch of pegs from the Hollywood version, but didn’t bother really digging into who and what this man really was.

MPS: Outside of Ness and Capone did you discover another person in the book you found fascinating?

MAC: Edward O’Hare, father of the war hero O’Hare Airport was named for, was a fascinating, shifty fixer, who has often been painted positively by historians when in fact he was a manipulative, slippery character.

MPS: Did you find anything that contradicted Eliot Ness’ memoir The Untouchables?

MAC: The memoir has been much criticized, yet a lot of it really happened.  The co-author, sports writer Oscar Fraley, took great liberties by moving historical material around for dramatic effect.  Things Ness did prior to the Untouchables — the Chicago Heights investigation, for example — were depicted by Fraley as happening after the formation of the Capone squad.  Ness was at the end of his life, needing money desperately, and allowed the book to be essentially a non-fiction novel.

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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.

 

Three Picks for August

The Long Drop Cover ImageThe Long Drop by Denise Mina

One of the best crime novels from 2017 is out in paperback. Denise Mina weaves the events from one of Scotland’s most infamous trails through with the pub crawl from hell between the father and husband of the victims and the man prosecuted. A dark and rich meditation on media, class, and different forms of sin.

 

 

The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday Cover ImageThe Long-Lost Love Letters Of Doc Holliday by David Corbett

The correspondences between the infamous gunfighter Doc Holliday and his beloved cousin come into the hands of an arts lawyer and former rodeo cowboy, ex-art forger, turned western art appraiser. A crooked judge has his eyes on them and soon a militia group and a few other scoundrels are after the the two, Corbett gives us a modern west as wild as the old one, full of colorful characters. The author will be at BookPeople August 27th to sign and discuss the book.

 

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago Cover ImageScarface And The Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and The Battle For Chicago by Max Allan Collins and Brad A Schwartz

Crime fiction stalwart Max Allan Collins teams up with historian Brad A Schwartz for detailed and informative look at the famous mob boss and the driven government agent out to get him. This epic true crime weaves their biographies as well as the life of prohibition era Chicago for something more exciting than any film or TV show captured about their story.

 

PICK OF THE MONTH: THE LINE THAT HELD US BY DAVID JOY

David Joy is quickly building a reputation as one of crime fiction’s finest voices. He looks at the people on the edge of Appalachian society, a society that is on the margins of American life altogether. His main characters tend to be damaged and many are prone to violence, yet Joy keeps you with them until you realize their full humanity. In his latest, The Line That Held Us, he sets us up for what seems like a simple morality thriller and then digs deeper.

The Line That Held Us Cover ImageIt all starts with two people trespassing, each to commit a different crime. Darl Moody goes poaching for a buck on his neighbor’s land when the man is out of town. He can’t find the deer, but thinks he spots a wild pig and fires. It turns out he shot and killed Carol “Sissy” Brewer who was in the woods stealing the man’s gen sing. To make matters worse, Sissy’s brother, Dwayne is one of the town’s most violent criminals.

Darl goes to his buddy, Calvin Hooper. A brother from another mother, Calvin helps him bury Sissy behind Darl’s barn. They agree not to tell anyone, but secrets are hard to keep secret in a small town and Dwayne Brewer is out for vengeance.

The simple tale is told with emotional complexity. Its straight forward plot leaves room to to delve deep into his characters and their world without dragging the pace. Calvin, who soon grows into the protagonist role is a perfect everyman plunged into darkness. A hard working, reliable, blue collar guy you’d want on the job to drink a beer with, he finds himself facing the morality of his actions with Darl as well as danger as Dwayne closes in. He is at that stage in life where friendship can be equal to family and has to deal with a decision for one that puts the other in jeopardy. As a working class man in Appalachia with deep roots, his view of the newcomers who could be saving the town , but killing its culture on par with Dwayne.

Dwayne could simply have been written as thriller psychopath, but Joy proves to know this man well. He introduces us to him with a scene where he threatens a tween bully in a WalMart. It establishes him as dangerous and a man who takes something immediately to its extreme, but we know he has a code and a belief for avenging the weak. We learn how this was honed by his relationship with Sissy. The further his actions go, we never accept them and we fear for Calvin and Darl, but we understand where those actions come from. Instead of an antagonist he becomes more of a counter-protagonist.

The Line That Held Us demonstrates David Joy’s gift in relating to all his characters. We understand the society he portrays through its people and their struggles. Most of them are sinners, but many of them would like to be saints, and in the end the author reminds us we are our brother’s keeper.

SHOTGUN BLAST FROM THE PAST- UNDERSTUDY FOR DEATH BY CHARLES WILLEFORD

Charles Willeford pushed the boundaries of what we define as crime fiction. Many of his books just skirted with a crime, but his portrayal of characters you had to take on their own terms, examination of life in both quiet and loud desperation, and frank depictions of sex that were rarely romantic placed him as a stalwart of the genre. Recently Hard Case Crime brought back a book that is indicative of Willeford’s style that has been out of print for over half a century, Understudy For Death.

Understudy for Death Cover ImageThe story is driven by Marion Huneker, an upper middle class woman who shoots her two sleeping children, then pulls the trigger on herself. The book opens with the news story in the local paper that even prints the suicide note she left that explains little more than her seeing this place as a cruel world. The editor would like to use the incident for a several issue exposé on suicide and puts his night man Richard Hudson on it.

Hudson reluctantly takes the piece. For one, he is not one of those driven reporters out for the truth and a scoop. He dreams of quitting his job to be a famous Broadway playwright even though he has been working on the same unfinished script for years. He also has no sympathy for a woman who killed her two children.

He interviews several people who knew Huneker. A bartender at her club, a girlfriend, who he has a fling with, and her husband give murky puzzle pieces to her life. Her creative writing teacher, a hack short story man for the magazines, proves the most insightful to the woman as well as probably conveying Willeford’s thoughts on the writing business at the time. Hudson becomes much like the reporter in Citizen Kane, peeling each layer of the woman’s life through the people that knew her, but there is no Rosebud.

In fact, the more Hudson digs, the story becomes more about marriage than suicide. He and his wife Beryl, are in a stale part of their relationship and he chafes at matrimony’s constraints. As the secrets of both the late Mrs. Huneker and Beryl are revealed to him, he ties the suicide to happiness (or lack there of) in being a wife and mother.

Willeford captures the surrealness of a group that lost someone to suicide. He avoids any pat answers and delivers a subtle mood to portray the void that now hangs over everything. As someone who lost a co-worker to suicide the day between finishing the book and writing this review, I can attest to its emotional accuracy.

He also gives us an unconventional point of view to take it all in with Richard Hudson. The reporter is self involved, petty, and commits a handful of misogynistic acts. We mainly follow him because of his worldview and possibly identify with him in ways we would rather not. He embodies a perfect example of suburban ennui. He would love to be a rebel, but he lacks the courage, so he simply holds things in contempt. At the end, we are not entirely sure if he completely learned the lesson or learned it right.

Understudy For Death is elusive in its themes as it is in the reason for Marion Huneker’s suicide. It is the study of a fresh void and the life around it. Like many of Willeford’s novels, it portrays death as that unavoidable thing and the way we deal with it in our lives. Willeford held up a mirror to the reader and didn’t care if you liked what you saw.

MEIKE’S REVIEW OF A TASTE FOR VENGEANCE BY MARTIN WALKER

A Taste for Vengeance: A Bruno, Chief of Police Novel Cover ImageIt’s impossible to talk about Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police mystery series without talking about food and wine. (And it’s equally impossible to read the books without getting hungry!) Set in the Perigord region of France, the novels describe the local culinary traditions in great detail and Bruno’s love of good food and fine wine are integral themes of the book.  From his morning croissant to an evening meal featuring copious amounts of duck fat and a few glasses of the local wine, Bruno is a true connoisseur of all that the local farmers have to offer. He’s also deeply invested in the friendships he’s formed, volunteering with local youth and organizing dinners with friends who might not otherwise get to see each other. The Perigord is a region steeped in history (it’s been continually occupied for some 70,000 years) and Walker brings the abundant cultural and comestible traditions to vibrant life.

But don’t be deceived by the seemingly bucolic setting—Walker’s novels aren’t cozies by any means, they’re intricately plotted works teeming with political and international intrigue.

In A Taste for Vengeance, Bruno is adjusting to his new role—instead of being responsible only for the town of St. Denis, his territory will now cover the entire valley and a couple of other jurisdictions. He must navigate a new chain of command while not alienating former peers who now report to him—a delicate balancing act for the modest Bruno.

A friend asks Bruno if he can find out why one of her cooking school students, German tourist Monika Felder, didn’t show up as planned; his investigation reveals that the woman had been travelling with someone other than her husband, a mysterious Irishman presumed to be her lover. When the two turn up dead, the investigation deepens and Bruno learns that the Irishman was operating under an assumed identity and had not only a background in intelligence but also a military connection to Monika’s husband.

Meanwhile, Bruno learns that the star member of the youth rugby team he mentors is pregnant—a development he perceives as potentially catastrophic on the eve of her possible nomination to the national squad.

As always, Walker weaves these disparate plot elements together seamlessly and the reader is treated to a riveting and complex tale of crime while gaining insight into Bruno’s rich and varied personal life.

July Top Pick: Megan Abbott’s latest

There are few authors who push themselves like Megan Abbott. In doing so, she has expanded noir as well, demonstrating the elasticity of the genre. She has blazed a trail from seedy bars  and back allies to suburban homes and high school gymnasiums. In her latest, Give Me Your Hand, she proves science can be full of sin.

Give Me Your Hand Cover ImageThe book centers on the relationship of two scientists. Kit Owens toils as a researcher for the prominent Dr. Severin. She is in the running to be part of Severin’s team for a prominent study of premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Her chances are good, until Severin unknowingly brings in someone from the darkest part of Kit’s past.

Diane Fleming moved to Kit’s high school with whispers of her past and possessing the kind of discipline and drive Kit lacked at the time. Their friendship drove the other to be their best, physically and mentally. Abbott is able to describe their relationship with nuance and subtleties to portray something much deeper than competitiveness. The bond becomes severed when Diane shares a dark secret with Kit, not as much for the revelation itself but the fact that Kit is burdened to hold it. Now that Diane has returned to her life in this manner, the secret becomes even heavier.

Image result for megan abbottAbbott deftly uses that secret as the centerpiece of the book. It drives the front part of the narrative with the story building tension by the withholding of it and juxtaposing Kit and Diane’s teen years with their reunion. Both the timing and the subject turn the reveal into a well executed bomb. The rest of the book’s suspense come from where and how hard the fragments crash after the explosion.

The lab setting would seem less fitting for noir, but Abbott uses the world to her advantage. The competition of the study sets up subtle back-biting that could lead to back stabbing, A certain job involving an incinerator comes in handy. The antiseptic environment makes for an interesting contrast to the messy emotions that play out in the harsh sterile light.

With Give Me Your Hand Megan Abbott ratchets the tension at page one and never stops as she delves into female friendship, different forms of sexism in science, and ambition. While seated deep in noir, it never goes for the obvious tropes. Once again, she takes the genre on her her own terms and takes no prisoners.

Make sure you’re here July 24th at 7pm when Megan is here to discuss the book along with Ace Atkins.