The collision of celebrated mobster Al “Scarface” Capone and his larger-than-life nemesis, Prohibition agent Eliot “The Untouchable” Ness, has become an American myth. In Scarface and the Untouchable, the latest narrative of their convergence—which played out primarily on the streets of Prohibition-era Chicago—Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz go into great detail to present the day-to-day realities that made this law-versus-lawless conflict so colorful, violent and headline-grabbing.
Both Capone and Ness were the sons of immigrants, and both were equally animated by ambition. Capone showed his viciousness and enterprise early, while Ness was a late bloomer who took time out for college before drifting into law enforcement. But Ness’ childhood fascination with Sherlock Holmes foretold an enthusiasm for evidence gathering and “the chase.” After he became famous, Ness assumed Sherlockian importance of his own by serving as the model for the cartoon crime buster Dick Tracy.
In spite of creating a bootlegging empire and ordering a string of murders, Capone was finally convicted and jailed for mere tax evasion. Ness did his part to bring down Capone by relentlessly raiding his breweries, thus eroding his economic base. Although the two never had a face-to-face confrontation, Ness was on hand to help escort Capone to prison. The repeal of Prohibition did little to dismantle the criminal organizations like Capone’s that it brought into being. It did, however, coincide with the end of Capone’s career. Straight-shooter Ness would move on to clean up the Cleveland, Ohio, police department and, two years after his death, come to life again as the central figure in the television crime series “The Untouchables.”
The scholarship displayed in Scarface and the Untouchable is extraordinary, probing deeply into the activities, interrelationships and mindsets of the many principal characters. Publicity-seeking Capone is especially well-drawn. The graft-ridden but vibrant city of Chicago achieves character status as well.
This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.