Scrupulously researched account of the men who made the 1920s roar, and the straight-arrows who stopped them.
Former Chicago magazine executive editor Eig (Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, 2007, etc.) rescues the narrative of Al Capone from the realm of pop melodrama, offering vibrant historical storytelling and a nuanced, enigmatic portrait of Capone and his Chicago milieu. The author discovered several long-forgotten archives of key documents, including unreleased IRS files and “Untouchable” Eliot Ness’ wiretap transcripts. Eig constructs a plausible, often surprising narrative of criminality, but he also fleshes it out into a colorful urban social history. The Capone that emerges here is certainly a ruthless criminal, but far from the psychopath portrayed in films. He appears to be more a natural product of his time, a bemused immigrants’ son who, in the brutal environment of working-class Chicago, intuited that Prohibition offered an opportunity to leap from tavern hustler to major profiteer. Capone was loyal to associates and devoted to his family, apparently tried to broker truces with other gangs before the inevitable internecine bloodbaths and loved nightlife, gambling and women so much that his nickname was “Snorky,” meaning ritzy. The backdrop for Capone’s evolution was a Chicago so chaotic and corrupt that its citizens actually returned the outrageously crooked mayor William Thompson to office, following a seemingly futile reform administration. Capone loved talking to the press, which thrilled people but infuriated the Feds. While “Secret Plot” seems an overstatement, Eig argues that Herbert Hoover was determined to make an example of the gangster, a preoccupation that persisted even as the Depression grew deeper. The flawed Ness’ contributions were minimal, but a little-remembered state’s attorney and IRS agent doggedly built an intricate case against Capone over several years. Their work seems compromised due to the interference of a vengeful judge, who threw out a plea agreement in order to send the gangster to trial and, ultimately, Alcatraz.
An impressive, accessible history of a troubled time.