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.

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.