Posts Tagged ‘Scarface and the Untouchable’

Processing Spillane and Heller

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2021

I should probably dispense with asking you to buy and then Amazon-review both Fancy Anders Goes to War and The Many Lives of Jimmy Leighton (co-written by the great Dave Thomas). I won’t even remind you what wonderful Christmas gifts they would make.

I just have too much class for that.

Instead, I’ll talk about process this week. Who doesn’t love process? A few weeks ago I touched on the challenges and difficulties of Spillane: King of Pulp Fiction, co-written with James L. Traylor. We are waiting with anticipation for the editorial notes to come back, which will require tweaking but I hope nothing major, as I am very proud of my draft, and Jim likes it, too.

What surprised me was reading all the material about Mickey I’d gathered going back to my junior high days – I literally used the scrapbook I kept, because it had various articles and reviews pasted in among my carbons of indignant letters to anti-Spillane reviewers and my cartoony portraits of Mickey. What I hadn’t anticipated was the picture all of that material would paint when, for the first time, I read it all at once…not just in dribs and drabs as articles and such first appeared.

I feel like I put together pieces of the Spillane puzzle that had eluded me, despite my close personal relationship with the man for the last 25 years of his life. Many assumptions I’d made – and had cockily presented as fact in various pieces and introductions about Mickey and his work over the recent years – proved short-sighted…not wrong exactly, but lacking nuance.

For example, I no longer think his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses had anything much to do with the near decade-long respite he took from novel writing. I do think his style shifted, and the violence and sex were both more restrained; but not absent. Re-reading The Deep recently, I saw how he used the threat of impending violence to create a story about a tough hero who really only kills once, and then in self-defense. In The Girl Hunters, Hammer kills nary a soul, though he does trick the “evil one” (as Traylor puts it) into self-destruction.

This probably had as much to do with his attempt to develop as a writer and to respond through his work to the incredibly unfair and even vicious attacks upon him throughout the 1950s. Other than perhaps Elvis Presley, no figure in popular culture had ever seen so much success and, simultaneously, so much condemnation. But the bio will, for the first time, reveal the major reason he stopped writing novels at his popular peak.

Writing about Eliot Ness with Brad Schwartz was a similar experience for me. So often Ness had been presented as a glory hound when the research showed he was primarily responding to pressure from above to get positive press. Additionally, things routinely dismissed by the Ness naysayers – including events reported in his autobiographical The Untouchables (mostly ghosted by sportswriter Oscar Fraley) – turned out to have really happened. It shouldn’t have been surprising to learn that Eliot Ness was actually Eliot Ness, but it was.

The Big Bundle Cover, Without text
The Big Bundle (Cover Sneak Peak)

And now, for the first time in several years, I am digging into the research for the upcoming Nathan Heller novel, The Big Bundle (for Hard Case Crime). The case I’m dealing with – the Bobby Greenlease kidnapping of 1953 – is not as famous as most of those I’ve examined; it was at the time, but today it seems mostly forgotten. What gives it the needed household-name-crime aspect that a Heller novel requires is a sinister connection to Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters. It is, in fact, the first of two novels about Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy, although this first one focuses primarily on the Greenlease case.

The Heller process is an odd one. First I have to select the true crime that seems appropriate for Nate’s attention (and mine, and yours). Second, I have to familiarize myself enough with the crime to write a proposal to be submitted to an editor/publisher, who must first sign on before I start serious work. Once we’re at that stage, I have to dig into the research, where the proposal was just a superficial look at the case. The approach has always been to look at the subject as if I were preparing to write the definitive non-fiction treatment of the case and then write a private eye novel instead.

A real problem with the proposal stage is that I am only guessing what the book will be about. The in-depth research (you will not be surprised, many of you, that I am in touch with George Hagenauer right now) is what reveals the book to me. And it always surprises me.

Here’s a small example. In True Detective, in what is essentially the origin of Nate Heller, Heller sells out to the Chicago Outfit to get promoted from uniform to plainclothes – to become a detective. He fingers the fall guy (who is playing along) to get somebody blamed and put away for the publicity-attracting murder of reporter Jake Lingle. The willing patsy, very minor in all of this but a seminal part of Heller’s story, is a real-life low-level mob guy named Leo Vincent Brothers.

So I’m researching The Big Bundle yesterday. For reasons I won’t go into right now, a taxi cab company run by a St. Louis racketeer named Joe Costello is instrumental in the story. I went in familiar with Costello in, again, only a superficial way – his name came up in the preliminary research and got him on my radar. So now, reading a book called A Grave For Bobby by James Deakin, I learn that Joe Costello’s partner in the taxi cab company…wait for it…was Leo Vincent Brothers.

This kind of thing always sits me on my ass. This tiny fact isn’t key to the story – it’s just an odd resonance, and a reminder that Heller’s life is just one long story, not really a succession of novels. Another name turned up yesterday, a Chicago thug with ties to the JFK assassination.

It would help if I had a steel-trap mind. But I don’t. I didn’t in my thirties and I really, really don’t in my seventies. So such discoveries send me scrambling back into the research.

In the meantime, I am looking for a way to insert Nate Heller into this narrative in a meaningful, credible way.

Wish me luck.

* * *

Two brief Blu-ray recommendations.

Jack Irish Season 3, Blu-ray

Jack Irish Season 3 is out from Acorn. It’s the final season of this series (there are actually five seasons, but the first two were movie-length episodes) and it’s a four-hour movie, essentially – one story, wrapping up the series in a smart, thoughtful way. I will go so far as to say it’s one of the best wrap-ups of a series, certainly one of the most satisfying, I’ve ever seen.

Guy Pearce plays a solid modern version of a private eye in this Australian neo-noir with all the surviving regulars back. Three years have passed since the preceding series and the passage of time and the need to learn, grow and move on is the central theme.

Great series.

Speaking of great, Eddie Muller has delivered one of the best Blu-rays of the year in the Flicker Alley presentation of The Beast Must Die (La Bestia Debe Morir), a 1952 Argentinian noir based on the Nicholas Blake novel, The Beast Must Die. Blake was really Cecil Day-Lewis, a UK poet laureate who is also the father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

While it’s a bit pricey, the blu-ray is essential for noir enthusiasts, and if you spring for it, be sure to watch Muller’s introduction, which provides context and more, including how-to-watch Spanish-language melodrama of this period, i.e., the acting tends not to be subtle.

You can get it directly from Flicker Alley here.

The Beast Must Die Blu-Ray
The Beast Must Die Theatrical Poster
* * *

Check out this lovely review of Fancy Anders Goes to War.

Here’s a Ms. Tree: The Cold Dish preview with info.

Also here.

I did a Mike Hammer interview for what, uh, appears to be an interesting magazine….

M.A.C.

Back to the Basement

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

After fourteen months, my band Crusin’ had its first two post-lockdown rehearsals. The accompanying photo illustrating the current line-up was, appropriately, shot in my garage (though we practice in the nearby basement among thousands of books and DVDs).

Crusin' 2021 garage photo
CRUSIN’ 2021, left to right: Collins, Scott Anson, Steve Kundel, Bill Anson

We have three gigs lined up for our “season,” the first being July 4 at the Missipi Brew in the evening leading up to the fireworks. I’ll post the other dates here soon. And another gig or two may come through – we’ll see.

It was great being back with the guys – bittersweet, of course, after the passing of Brian Van Winkle, our longtime bass player. Our guitarist Bill Anson’s son Scott is our new bassist, but not all that new – Brian had stepped away from the band before our last pre-Covid gig, and Scott had been running sound and helping us load in and out for a couple of years. This is the first time we’ve had a father and son in the band, although drummer DeWayne Hopkins (who went on to be mayor of Muscatine) was followed in that role by his son, Jamie.

Both rehearsals went well, although all of us were rusty to a degree – not so much where playing was concerned, but in remembering chords and lyrics and the structure of arrangements. We had spent a lot of time in 2019 working on originals for one last CD, and were playing them on the job, but for now we’re tabling them. Without a CD to promote and sell, playing the originals seemed wrong somehow – we’re a classic rock band (a ‘60s/’70s/’80s variety) and audiences are not there to hear our originals.

We will still do a handful of our own songs this season, but next year we hope to be out there with a CD of original material, and possibly include the original songs from my movie Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market, which feature my late, longtime musical accomplice Paul Thomas on guitar, vocals, producing and songwriting.

In addition to being rusty, I admit to having some problems with my hands, specifically arthritis in my thumbs, which hasn’t impacted my typing (yet) but which did slow me down at the organ keyboard…my brain kept asking my fingers to do things to which my fingers replied, “Are you effing kidding?”

This leads me to suspect that next year – assuming I’m here and so is everyone else in the band (uh, I’m no longer the oldest person in Crusin’) – will be our farewell mini-tour with a CD the jewel (or jewel case, anyway).

Funny thing. I did not personally rehearse at all during those fourteen months. I have a Roland keyboard in my office and I occasionally played it, usually when I was watching a laserdisc of some vintage rock group (New Wave the newest) and wanted to see if I could figure out (or remember) the chords. But I stayed out of the band room in the basement, other than to retrieve a DVD. I had something akin to a mental block about it and I can’t explain why.

That Roland keyboard in my office I had ordered when I was recovering from my heart surgery with my right hand essentially useless after the operating-table stroke I suffered. That keyboard, in addition to Physical Therapy exercises and such, was my savior. Very early in the recovery process I realized I had enough minimal strength in my right hand and fingers to type on a computer keyboard, which can tolerate a very light touch. Hardest thing about that was my usual hammering-away left hand needed to cool it some to have both hands work effectively in tandem.

But it was playing the Roland keyboard that largely got the use of my hand back – muscle memory, I guess. But we had it set on the dining room table like an oddly-shaped meal and I would play it several half hours a day, just doing improv things, like the “Light My Fire” and “Evil Ways” leads.

As for why I didn’t rehearse during those fourteen months, I can’t explain it. I often thought about going downstairs to practice, but I never did. I do know that I have never been one to “jam” – I like the structure of playing a song. My late uncle Mahlon Collins was a terrific trombone player who in his retirement years lived in Los Angeles and played in some big bands out there with top players…people who backed Sinatra-type top players (also with Chris Christensen of Seduction of the Innocent!). And Uncle Mahlon said he was the same way. He admired the soloists but he read charts. He liked structure. Songs.

I’m not exactly that way, because my ability to read music is limited and mostly I know chords – an organ player, not a pianist. And I do solos all the time – a Hammond B-3-style organ is great for improv and for more structured solos, too. If anyone cares, my favorite keyboard players are Rod Argent, Mark Stein and Alan Price. (I play a Nord that works well as a B-3 clone and the new version of the VOX Continental, for combo sounds.)

But just playing to play – again, getting together to jam – is not my…jam. I don’t write songs unless there’s a project – an indie movie of mine that needs songs, a CD we’re doing, even the time my father asked me to write a song for him to dance with my mother at their 50th wedding anniversary (it was called “Patricia,” which was her name, and was a pretty good tune). I wrote a Christmas song for a concert my dad was doing with his men’s chorus one year.

However…without a reason, an assignment, I would never sit down and write a song just for the hell of it, the way real musicians do. My guitar player Bill Anson writes songs all the time and he worked diligently in his home studio rehearsing Crusin’ (and other) material all through those fourteen months. I haven’t written any songs since I wrote my half dozen or so for the CD (the rest will be by Bill, except for one we wrote together, called “Crusin’” for some reason, which we performed at the 2018 induction concert for the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame).

I will say that – other than my arthritic thumbs protesting – I had no problem after fourteen months picking up where we left off. I always say – where my keyboard playing is concerned – I never knew enough to forget much.

* * *

Our first two-part Book Giveaway went very well – Barb and I sent out two boxes of books on Saturday. A few people got two books as we had some Antiques Fire Sale paperbacks left over.

We will probably have another giveaway next week.

I’m not trying to smother you people in pulp, it’s just that I have no control over publication dates. When a book comes out, I do a giveaway. Which means there may be several in the same month or two, or six months or more may pass between ‘em.

But I thank all of you who participate in these giveaways and we’re grateful for your reviews.

* * *

For some reason this video, in support of Scarface and the Untouchable by Brad Schwartz and me, has resurfaced. It’s on Fox Nation. [Photosensitivity warning: flashing lights]

Here is a swell review of Two for the Money, the Hard Case Crime combo of the first two Nolan novels, Bait Money and Blood Money.

And finally here is a fantastic review of Shoot-out at Sugar Creek from Bookgasm and Alan Cranis.

M.A.C.

Barb’s Mom and Writing From Experience

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021

Barb’s mother passed away last week. I mention this not to initiate a flood of condolence wishes, which since Barb does not use Facebook might fall on deaf ears anyway. Dorothy Carolyn Jensen Mull was 97 and had endured a long bedridden convalescence, although saying Dot’s passing was a “blessing” in a way does not make it any easier for Barb and her six siblings.

I mention it here because Dorothy deserves thanks and recognition for inspiring, to a degree, the character Vivian Borne in the Antiques cozy mystery series that Barb and I write. This is not to say that Dot was a zany eccentric or a local theater diva – neither was the case. But she was highly spirited and for a number of years went antiquing with Barb from this flea market to that garage sale. This led to Barb and her mom running a booth at an antiques mall together for a good number of years, which was a major inspiration for the book series.

And I am happy to say that Dot enjoyed the Trash ‘n’ Treasures mysteries, which in her later years (with her eyesight failing) were read to her by Barb’s sister Anne.

I go into this in part because it speaks to Barb’s methods and mine where it comes to writing fiction. Though we work in a genre with its own conventions and (to use the tiresome current favorite term) tropes, we both instill elements from our own experience in our storytelling. The psychologist character in the Antiques books draws from Barb’s sister Cindi, yes, a psychologist. Barb has an older sister just as Brandy Borne does, although past a few superficial similarities the resemblance ends there. She also has a sister, Kathe, whose work in Broadway theater impacted our novel, Antiques Con. My brother-in-law Gary inspired a friend of Quarry’s who has somehow managed not to get killed, either in real life or fiction.

This kind of thing goes back to the earliest days of my career, when I was first able to inject elements of my real life into my crime-fiction fantasy. Mourn the Living had an Iowa City setting and reflected the hippie era there when I was in college. Bait Money finds Nolan and Jon robbing the bank where Barb was working at the time; she provided me with their security protocols!

Even in writing historical fiction I draw upon my own experiences. I wouldn’t have written The Titanic Murders if I hadn’t read in grade school a Tab book club edition of Jacque Futrelle’s The Thinking Machine. Getting betrayed by my best friend from high school (who embezzled from me) played a part in any number of my novels in the last twenty years, including Quarry’s Ex, which also drew upon my experiences making indie movies.

Anyway, it’s a lesson aspiring writers in any genre should take to heart. Don’t just write out of the books you’ve read and movies and TV you’ve seen. Draw on your experiences even in the context of mystery fiction or s-f or westerns or…really, any genre.

And one last thing – thank you, Dorothy. You inspired me, through your daughter and your own unique spirit.

* * *
Scarface and the Untouchable Cover

Scarface and the Untouchable – the Capone/Ness non-fiction work by Brad Schwartz and me – hit the entertainment news last week. CBS is exercising their option to pick up the property for a series and it’s going to Showtime. We’ll see if it happens.

Read about it here, where you’ll discover my middle name is “Allen” and that apparently no one but me (and you) remembers that this all began with The Untouchables TV series starring Robert Stack.

* * *

Barb and I went to a movie at the local theater for the first time since the pandemic hit – something like fourteen months. We are, as you may be aware, frequent moviegoers and it was definitely strange to be back doing something so familiar after over a year and a half away from it. The theater did a good job with every other row blocked off and masks in the outer areas. We went at an off-time (3:30 pm on a Sunday) and were among perhaps seven other moviegoers.

The film was terrific – Wrath of Man, starring Jason Stratham and directed by Guy Ritchie. I like Ritchie’s films very much – he is essentially the UK’s Tarantino. It’s a very hardboiled crime story and not for the faint of heart (or the five year-old whose parents took her to this screening), minus the humor and quick cutting of most Ritchie films. This has more of a Richard Stark feel than the Parker film Stratham starred in a few years ago.

* * *

Here’s a wonderful review of Shoot-out at Sugar Creek, the new Caleb York.

And another.

Jeez, maybe you guys ought to read this one.

M.A.C.

Celebrating the Release of the Mad Butcher

Tuesday, August 4th, 2020
Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher
Hardcover: Indiebound Purchase Link Bookshop Purchase Link Amazon Purchase Link Books-A-Million Purchase Link Barnes & Noble Purchase Link
E-Book: Amazon Purchase Link Google Play Purchase Link Nook Purchase Link Kobo Purchase Link iTunes Purchase Link
Digital Audiobook: Amazon Purchase Link Google Play Purchase Link Kobo Purchase Link
Audio MP3 CD: Indiebound Purchase Link Bookshop Purchase Link Amazon Purchase Link Books-A-Million Purchase Link Barnes & Noble Purchase Link
Audio CD: Indiebound Purchase Link Bookshop Purchase Link Amazon Purchase Link Books-A-Million Purchase Link Barnes & Noble Purchase Link

Today is the publication date of the non-fiction tome Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher by A. Brad Schwartz and myself. I am celebrating this by giving away ten copies.

[Edit: All copies have been claimed. Thank you!]

The four Eliot Ness novels covering his Cleveland years – a quartet that eventually led to both the play/film Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life and the two non-fiction works, Scarface and the Untouchable and the new Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher – are available at Amazon from Wolfpack as An Eliot Ness Mystery Omnibus for $2.99. Even with my meager math skills, I can tell that’s a penny under three bucks for four novels.

While we hope to offer new print versions of the novels (perhaps in two-novels-to-a-volume form), right now they are Kindle e-books only. So no giveaways are in the cards for now. But if you have already read the novels – any of them – and liked them, reviews of the Eliot Ness Omnibus would be much appreciated. Right now we have a paltry two reviews at Amazon and that doesn’t go very far at getting the Omnibus noticed. Even if you haven’t bought the books in this new form, don’t hesitate about reviewing them under the Omnibus listing.

Since I’ll be talking about Eliot Ness this week, I’ll remind you that Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life is available on Blu-ray now at Amazon.

It’s also available on DVD for $9.99.

Reviews for Untouchable Life at Amazon are also appreciated. We only have two at the moment, and no one has specifically talked about the Blu-ray.

Also, the entire five-book Mallory series will be available for 99-cents each as Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle book deals from now through the end of August. Included in the sale will be the thriller Regeneration by Barb and me (as “Barbara Allan”), also at 99-cents.

The Mallory titles are: No Cure for Death; The Baby Blue Rip-off; Kill Your Darlings; A Shroud for Aquarius; and Nice Weekend for a Murder.

* * *

Is it undignified to celebrate the career of a law enforcement icon who could not be bribed by offering a giveaway, and hawking various titles pertaining to him? I don’t really care, since I never claimed to be untouchable myself.

But Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher (it has a subtitle but I decline to use it, because I dislike it intensely) marks the final stage of an interest in the real-life lawman that reaches back into my childhood. My interest in such things begins even before the first Untouchables of two installments on Desilu Playhouse aired on April 20, 1959. The Dick Tracy comic strip (by way of comic book reprints) had ignited that interest; but, in fairness, since Ness was the real-life basis of Chester Gould’s Tracy, the Untouchable was already in the mix.

There’s no question that Tracy and Ness got me interested in stories about detectives, but more significantly The Untouchables TV series (and the autobiographical book that spawned it) got me interested in the factual material that generated so much of the guns-and-gangster pulp fiction I adored. My novel True Detective (1983), after all, deals with the same crime – the assassination of Mayor Cermak – as a two-part Untouchables episode I saw as a kid. Granted, that two-parter only nodded at history, but that nod was enough to get my attention.

Ness became the Pat Chambers to Nathan Heller’s Mike Hammer in a number of the Heller novels. At the request of an editor at Bantam, I spun Ness off into the four novels that dealt with his Cleveland years (previously explored, somewhat inaccurately, in Oscar Fraley’s Untouchables follow-up, Four Against the Mob, but otherwise little written about).

Two things are, I think, significant about those novels, including that they represent the first time actual cases of this real-life American detective had been the basis of stories about him (excluding the initial two-part telefilm). More importantly, the writing of the books led to research by myself and George Hagenauer that uncovered new (or at least forgotten) information about Ness.

In addition to his occasional role in the Nathan Heller saga, Ness appeared in my graphic novel Road to Perdition (drawn by the great Richard Piers Rayner) and in my prose sequel, Road to Purgatory (available from Brash Books). The latter, to some degree, dealt with Ness’s little-known role in fighting venereal disease on military bases and elsewhere during World War II.

For unknown reasons, Ness was not depicted in the film version of Road to Perdition, but that nonetheless led to the play (and 2007 video production of) Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life. Initially, actor Michael Cornelison and I were planning to do a one-man show about Perdition antagonist John Looney. We intended to mount it in Rock Island (where Looney had been the local crime boss in the early Twentieth Century) and shoot the film in one of the two existing houses were Looney had lived.

Somewhere along the line, one of us – it may have been Mike – suggested that Ness would have greater appeal to a wider national audience. Also, over the years I had heard from editors and readers that I should do a non-fiction treatment of Ness, since I had done so much research into and about him. Much of what George and I uncovered about Ness was making its way into the accounts of non-fiction writers (fiction writers, too) without credit.

As an independent filmmaker, looking for productions that could be produced cheaply but well, I found a one-man show appealing. I also had the possibility of a grant from Humanities Iowa, for whom I’d made an appearance at a University of Iowa event with editorial cartoonist, Paul Conrad. We mounted the play at the Des Moines Playhouse, where we shot the film between performances. My eventual co-author Brad Schwartz saw the play and that sparked our collaboration.

I had intended An Untouchable Life to be my final statement on Ness. While it is written from Ness’s point of view, skewed to his own memories and perceptions of his life, and some dramatic liberties were taken (by both Ness and me!), the play represents the most accurate depiction of Ness on screen to date.

Eventually, however, Brad convinced me to join him in writing the definitive biography of Ness. We embarked on doing that only to discover another, apparently major Ness biography was about to come out. I had once considered doing a massive, Godfather-style novel on both Capone and Ness, cutting back and forth between their stories. Now I suggested we follow that approach, but in a strictly non-fiction fashion. That would set us apart from any Ness bio or Capone bio, for that matter.

Obviously that approach – particularly since we intended to do cradle-to-grave accounts of both men – turned out to be too big for one book. Now we have a two-volume work that I feel confident is the definite treatment of the life of Eliot Ness. The research George and I did for the novels has been greatly enhanced by further research, much of it by my co-author, who crisscrossed the country in his efforts, even talking to surviving friends and associates of the long-deceased lawman.

It must be said that I have written about several different Eliot Nesses. The Ness of the Heller books serves a specific function – he is Heller’s conscience, the Jiminy Cricket to his Pinocchio. The portrayal darkens in Angel in Black and Do No Harm. The Eliot Ness Omnibus of Cleveland novels is a basically accurate but somewhat romanticized version of Ness – far closer to reality than Robert Stack, but splitting the difference between them. The same is true of Ness in Road to Perdition and Road to Purgatory. Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life is only slightly romanticized, and (in my view at least) portrays him as he saw himself.

The real Ness can be found in Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher (and Scarface and the Untouchable). My co-author and I did not always agree on what – or who – the research added up to. We wrestled our way into a joint presentation that is probably more accurate than if either of us had been turned loose alone.

I can look at these two works and feel that, at last, I have done right by this complex real-life Dick Tracy. With the publication of Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher, with the recent publication of Do No Harm (which ends Ness’s story in the world of Nate Heller), and with the four Ness-in-Cleveland novels gathered into Omnibus form, I feel I’ve come full circle.

* * *

Here’s a great Wall Street Journal review. Here is the link, but it requires a subscription to read.

‘Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher’: An Untouchable Second Act

After helping to put Al Capone behind bars, lawman Eliot Ness came to Cleveland, where he did battle with a vicious killer.

Moviegoers of a certain age will remember Eliot Ness—the upright law-enforcement figure who battled corruption and organized crime from the 1920s to the ’40s—as portrayed by a tough-talking Kevin Costner in Brian De Palma’s 1987 movie “The Untouchables.” Television viewers from an even earlier era will recall Ness depicted by the stern-faced Robert Stack in the ABC series (1959-63) of the same name. But the real-life Ness, as revealed in Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz’s “Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher,” was less the hard-boiled hero of popular culture than a humane and forward-thinking lawman as interested in preventing crime as in punishing it.

The Chicago-born Ness (1903-57) came to prominence as a Prohibition agent in the Windy City, doing battle with Al Capone and other bootleggers as head of his own hand-picked squad of agents. His men were dubbed the “Untouchables” for their refusal to accept payoffs or gratuities. As a friend observed of the incorruptible lawman: “Honesty amounted to almost a fetish.”

The government put Capone behind bars in 1932 via the prosecution of a tax-evasion case, but the work of Ness and his men was central to establishing the extent of the mobster’s criminal activities. With Capone out of the picture, the Untouchables were disbanded, and Prohibition ended soon after. Ness, a nationally known figure (his physical and professional image inspired Chester Gould’s comic-strip police hero Dick Tracy), looked beyond Chicago for new opportunity. He found it in Cleveland, the site of his next significant successes—but also of the disturbing case that gives Messrs. Collins and Schwartz’s book its title.

Ness was named Cleveland’s director of public safety in 1935 and was put in charge of the city’s police and fire departments. He found the cops to be sloppy, uncooperative and demoralized. Once more he formed his own discrete unit of Untouchables to weed out incompetent and corrupt officers and hire smart new ones. “Intelligence,” he counseled, “must supplant brutality.”

But even Ness was stumped trying to apprehend the “torso murderer” responsible for a series of ghoulish killings, in which parts of dismembered and beheaded corpses were strewn about the woods and dumpsites of Kingsbury Run, one of the city’s poorest areas. “The mystery of the headless dead” drew national and international attention. In Germany, the Nazi press mocked America’s inability to apprehend the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.” With no witnesses and sometimes no way even to identify victims—and with advanced forensics techniques far in the future—police were stymied.

By 1938, the authors write, “the Butcher had become the subject of the largest manhunt in Cleveland’s history.” Thousands of citizens wrote and called the cops with worthless tips. “The investigators, after years of fruitless searching, grew desperate, pursuing ever more eccentric lines of inquiry.” At last a few tantalizing leads brought an alcoholic and mentally disturbed doctor named Francis Sweeney to the attention of the detectives.

Ness and his crew subjected the 44-year-old Sweeney—who had shown signs of psychosis and had been verbally and physically cruel—to judicially inadmissible polygraph examinations that convinced all present of his guilt. Still, despite an abundance of circumstantial indicators, Ness had no hard evidence. Complicating matters was the man’s being a cousin of a local congressman, a vocal Ness critic. Prosecution was not an option. Ness handled the matter privately, helping to arrange Sweeney’s commitment to a mental hospital. Sweeney, who was institutionalized for much of the rest of his life, sent a series of bizarre and taunting postcards to Ness through the mid-1950s.

Though Ness was sure that the killer had been caught and dealt with, he couldn’t officially close the case and so swore himself and his men to secrecy. The public was left with the impression that the culprit might still be at large. The case of the Mad Butcher, with its unsatisfying non-finale, fits a bit awkwardly into Messrs. Collins and Schwartz’s wider narrative. In the latter stages of their book, the authors ably follow Ness through an unsuccessful foray into city politics and a disappointing business career. But given this work’s title and its subtitle—“Hunting America’s Deadliest Unidentified Serial Killer at the Dawn of Modern Criminology”—one sometimes gets the feeling of two different books uneasily hitched.

That said, the authors have done Ness justice. It’s discouraging to learn that a man who refused a fortune in bribes died $9,000 in debt. Shortly before his fatal heart attack at the age of 54, he finished work on the memoir that would revive and romanticize his reputation and bring his third wife and their adopted son a modicum of income.

Messrs. Collins and Schwartz, in this, their second deeply researched book about Ness, don’t gloss over their subject’s failings and blind spots, but they do show that he tried harder than many to leave the world a better place. His “signature achievements in Cleveland—fighting juvenile delinquency, reorganizing the police department, promoting traffic safety—stemmed from a deep well of humanity and compassion,” they write. Now more than ever, the authors conclude, Ness’s name “should remind us of the rigorous standards he brought to law enforcement—professionalism, competence, honor, and decency—and a determination to make everyone safer by addressing the systemic root causes of crime.”

Review by Tom Nolan.

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My favorite Jeopardy! question popped up again on a rerun this week:

MAC on Jeopardy!

Here’s a great interview with my buddy Charles Ardai, editor of Hard Case Crime. He mentions me several times, bless him.

Check out this wonderful review of The First Quarry.

M.A.C.