A gritty dual biography reveals the underworld of crime and corruption in 1920s and ’30s America.
In 1923, Al Capone (1899-1947) and Eliot Ness (1903-1957) became neighbors on a residential street in Chicago. As award-winning mystery writer Collins (Executive Order, 2017, etc.) and historian Schwartz (Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, 2015, etc.) reveal, their careers soon vastly diverged. While Ness was a college student, Capone was involved in one of the city’s major industries: crime. Within a few years, they would become fierce antagonists, Capone a notorious mobster, Ness a law enforcement agent focused on ferreting out bootleggers, especially Capone. By 1932, Capone had intensified into Ness’ “obsession, consuming much of his time and energy.” His team of agents, known as the Untouchables, became as famous in crime-fighting as Capone was in perpetrating crime. Like an urban hero, Capone was the first mobster depicted on a Time magazine cover. “He is, in his own phrase, ‘a business man’ who wears clean linen, rides in a Lincoln car, leaves acts of violence to his underlings,” the magazine reported. Chicago tour buses pointed out his “old haunts.” Law enforcement dubbed him “Public Enemy Number One,” an epithet that became his “enduring nickname,” rather than “Scarface,” which he hated. Scrappy and debonair, he had risen to the status of myth, “a symbol of government ineptitude and incompetence” and “the breakdown of the rule of law.” When he was finally tried for tax evasion, the courtroom attracted more than 30 journalists, including Damon Runyon. Jurors’ deliberations, the authors assert, “boiled down to a question Chicagoans—and so many Americans—had wrestled with through Capone’s rise to infamous fortune: Was this man, this bootlegger, pimp, and killer, really all that bad?” The authors recount how Capone (the model for gangsters played by Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney) and Ness (model for Dick Tracy) took firm hold in popular culture.
A fast-paced tale related with novelistic drama.