“Untouchable Truth” (by Max Allan Collins)

This year, for the first time in nearly seventy-seven years of publication, EQMM brought a true-crime column (Stranger Than Fiction by Dean Jobb) under its banner. The connections between crime fiction and true crime are many, and a number of EQMM’s fiction writers are also true-crime writers, so we were pretty sure our readers would be interested in hearing about new true-crime books. One very important writer who tackles both fiction and true crime is Max Allan Collins. Max’s solo fiction and collaborations with Mickey Spillane have been appearing in EQMM for a number of years. A Grand Master of the MWA, Max is noted in the fiction realm for his Shamus Award-winning Nathan Heller historical series, the Quarry series (on which a feature film and Cinemax TV series were based), the graphic novel Road to Perdition (basis for the Academy Award-winning film), and the Trash ’n’ Treasures cozy series written with his wife, Barbara Collins. Now, Max has teamed up with A. Brad Schwartz to produce the definitive history of Al Capone and Eliot Ness: Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago (William Morrow, August 2018). In this post, Max gives us some insights into his historical fiction, his deep-rooted interest in Eliot Ness, and how his new true-crime book with A. Brad Schwartz came about. After reading this fascinating piece, those who missed it earlier may want to check out EQMM’s Stranger Than Fiction column for March, “Murder and Mayhem in the Windy City” (available free at our website).—Janet Hutchings 

On Monday night, April 20, 1959, the first of a two-part TV presentation called “The Untouchables” appeared on Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. I was eleven years old, watching in Muscatine, Iowa, and I was dumbstruck. The next day, all the kids—well, the boys, anyway—were talking about this hardhitting crime show, the fact-based story of federal agent Eliot Ness and his band of incorruptible lawmen, taking on the Capone gang during Prohibition.

Me, I was bowled over by how much it tallied with my obsession (which had started at age six) with Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, particularly reprints of 1930s and ’40s comic strips. When the concluding “Untouchables” episode aired, finally presenting Al Capone on camera (after the week before’s crafty cliffhanger), I was struck by how much Capone was like the ’30s Tracy villain, Big Boy.

I could hardly have imagined that, less than twenty years later, I’d be writing the strip, and hearing Chester Gould confirm my suspicions that detective Tracy had been based on Ness and the Untouchables—a fact still little noted or known.

That was the beginning of my interest in true crime in general and Eliot Ness specifically. I immediately read Ness’s memoir, The Untouchables (1957), cowritten by sports writer Oscar Fraley, as well as Fraley’s follow-up, Four Against the Mob (1958), about Ness’s later law enforcement career in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Ness/Fraley book has largely been dismissed as fabrication, but one of our many discoveries has been how surprisingly accurate it was. Fraley built his book on a decidedly nonboastful, fairly short memoir by Ness, amplifying it with newspaper and magazine accounts. But the ghost writer paid no heed to chronology, and events appeared in what struck Fraley as the most effective order. Ness protested to no avail, taken out by a heart attack at fifty-four, before publication of the work that would make him far more famous dead than he’d been alive.

Fraley’s readable if creatively rearranged account led to a backlash among Ness’s contemporaries in law enforcement as well as Chicago journalists, building him (inaccurately) into a glory hound. The enormously successful TV series that the Desilu Playhouse two-parter spawned did Ness’s real-life reputation no favors, either.

Ironically, the original two-part film (released theatrically as The Scarface Mob) was the most accurate presentation on film Ness and the Untouchables has ever received. Director Phil Karlson was a master at true-crime noir, with Phoenix City Story (1955) behind him, and Walking Tall (1973), ahead of him (with its similar glorification of real-life lawman Buford Pusser).

Featuring Hollywood star Robert Stack as a grimly charismatic Ness, “The Untouchables” two-parter boasted a semi-documentary style, Roaring Twenties nostalgia, and fast, violent action, with ’30s media star Walter Winchell’s rat-a-tat-tat narration perhaps the masterstroke.

But in their accidental pilot film, director Karlson and screenwriter Paul Monash exhausted the source book, concluding with Capone on his way to prison. With the nemesis of Ness’s real and reel Untouchable days incarcerated, the series had no choice but to focus on Capone successor Frank Nitti, with only a single two-parter (“The Big Train”) bringing Neville Brand’s memorable Al Capone back during the show’s four-season run.

A much fictionalized Chicago mob was amplified by similarly fanciful episodes taking on such real-life criminals as Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, Dutch Schultz, Waxey Gordon, Legs Diamond, and Lucky Luciano. J. Edgar Hoover, never a fan of the real Ness, objected so much to the Untouchables’ latter-day fame that he insisted the producers credit the FBI’s work at the end of the Ma Barker episode.

The only other two-part The Untouchables episode, “The Unhired Assassin,” was loosely based on the assassination of Mayor Anton Cermak. That event also became the subject of my detective novel, True Detective (1983).

In the late ’70s, teaching mystery fiction at a community college, I happened to notice The Maltese Falcon’s 1929 copyright—the year of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. That meant Sam Spade and Al Capone were contemporaries—instead of Phillip Marlowe meeting an Al Capone type, Al Capone could meet a Phillip Marlowe type.

In 1981, I set out to write period private eye story around a real crime—the Cermak assassination. I sought the help of George Hagenauer, a Chicagoan whose knowledge of the city and its mob history was considerable. I said to George, “My private eye, offended by the rampant graft, will quit the Chicago PD.” When he stopped laughing, George said, “Max, don’t you know? You get on the PD for the rampant graft!” In that exchange, Nathan Heller was born.

Ever since, George has been my primary research associate on the Heller novels, as well as many other historical thrillers. With Heller, the approach is to research a famous unsolved (or controversially solved) crime, and when I’m ready to write the definitive work on the subject, I write a private eye novel instead.

Early on I had the idea of making Eliot Ness the honest law enforcement contact for my somewhat shady P.I.—every private eye has a cop pal, after all. But I’d read in Fraley that Ness and the Untouchables had disbanded after Capone went to prison, and that Ness was gone from Chicago by 1933. The mandate of my novel was authenticity, so I abandoned the notion of using him.

And then he turned up in the research! Ness was right there on the scene, after two corrupt cops attempted the assassination of Frank Nitti. And into True Detective he went. Ness appears in a number of subsequent Heller novels, as well, in particular The Million-Dollar Wound (1986), Stolen Away (1991), and Angel in Black (2001).

In 1986 I was asked by an editor to spin Ness off into his own novels—a good opportunity to explore his little-written-about years as Public Safety Director in Cleveland. George and I made several trips to that city and explored the locations of potential Ness novels, from the castle-like boathouse on Clifton Lagoon where Eliot lived to the dreary Kingsbury Run gully where the serial-killing “Mad Butcher” pursued his homeless prey.

Our research took us to the Cleveland Public Library, the City Hall municipal reference library, and the Case Western Reserve Society, where the Ness papers reside. I expected to be disappointed. Noted mob expert Hank Messick’s Silent Syndicate (1967) explored the Cleveland mob while disparaging Ness’s gangbusting role.

So when I found in the Case Western Reserve card catalogue (remember those?) an entry saying, “Eliot Ness Scrapbook,” I held out little hope. We’d already been there all afternoon, but asked to see the scrapbook anyway. A civil servant slogged off dutifully to answer our request.

Near closing, the civil servant returned, pushing a hand truck with perhaps half a dozen huge scrapbooks, each many inches thick and large enough for a newspaper front page of the era to be pasted in. George and I exchanged the same kind of dumbstruck look that the original “Untouchables” broadcast had generated in me.

Actually exploring this treasure-trove find—apparently the last person to use the scrapbooks had been Oscar Fraley—meant returning the next day, and the next, and many more after that. Examining such items as Ness’s eyeglasses and a signed photo, I alerted the staff that this material should not be handed out to the general public, and soon Case Western had put the scrapbooks on microfilm.

Among that material were postcards sent from a mental institution to Eliot Ness by the “Mad Butcher” of Kingsbury Run. Eerily, the front of one postcard depicted actor Neville Brand, insane and ranting, clutching prison bars, in a still from Riot On Cell Block 11 (1954)—years before Brand would be Al Capone on The Untouchables.

The four Ness-in-Cleveland novels—The Dark City (1987), Butcher’s Dozen (1988), Bullet Proof (1989), and Murder by the Numbers (1993)—were followed in 2004 by a play, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life. A one-man show performed by my late friend Michael Cornelison, Untouchable Life became a film of the same name in 2005, airing on a number of PBS stations.

I had written the play, and then filmed it, in part because I wanted to go on the record with my version of Ness’s life. The research George and I did, particularly on Butcher’s Dozen (the first book-length work on the Kingsbury Run slayer), had been plundered without credit by other novelists and graphic novelists, and by nonfiction writers, who apparently felt that not acknowledging our work was fine because we were “fiction.”

I also wanted to address aspects of director Brian De Palma’s 1987 film, The Untouchables. De Palma is a director I admire and the film is well made and entertaining. The screenplay is another matter. David Mamet certainly created a memorable speech for Sean Connery—“You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun,” and so on.

But the historical inanities—inaccuracies doesn’t cover it—are unforgivable. I have no trouble with liberties being taken with historical material. But having Mounties chase rum runners in a country where rum is legal? Depicting a trial where a jury is changed midstream? Showing Eliot Ness tossing Frank Nitti off a building? The screenwriter displays a lack of respect not just for history, but his audience.

Untouchable Life attracted a high-school student from Michigan to the Des Moines Playhouse to see Michael Cornelison perform as Eliot Ness. A. Brad Schwartz had been a Dick Tracy fan since around five years of age, having been exposed to the film of that name (on which I was a creative consultant and wrote the movie tie-in novel).

At age eleven—and this may sound very familiar—he saw a movie called The Untouchables, recommended by his mother as being “like Dick Tracy but real-life.” He became enamored with that film, which led him to my work, including Road to Perdition, a graphic novel in which Eliot Ness appears. Brad was fifteen the summer he came to Des Moines for the play Untouchable Life, going to the premiere of the film in Moline, Illinois, in February 2005.

Somewhere along the way we got to know each other, and—after his college thesis evolved into the Orson Welles book, Broadcast Hysteria (Hill & Wang, 2015)—he suggested we collaborate on a biography of Eliot Ness. I’d had several editors suggest the same to me, but I felt Untouchable Life was my last word on the subject.

Apparently I was wrong.

Soon the project morphed into a dual biography of Capone and Ness. For a good long while, we hoped to follow Ness through to the end of his days, but eventually Chicago became the focus. For now.

We hope to set the record straight on any number of things. The inaccurate and unfair portrayal of Ness is one; the glorification of Al Capone is another. Jonathan Eig, in his Get Capone (2010), is guilty of both, particularly in trying to clear the mobster of the infamous baseball bat murders and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

For the former, Eig claims the baseball bat story only dates to 1975 when we have it in print within a year of the event. For the latter, he ignores ballistics evidence, eyewitness testimony, and a credible confession in favor of a convoluted theory based on a single error-ridden letter written to the FBI.

Deirdre Bair, in her book, Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend (2016), collaborates with Capone family members to present a portrait of a loving husband and father. Typically, Bair disparages Ness, claiming he made “sure the press was there to take his picture as he struck heroic poses over gallons of illegal boozed being smashed to pieces and going down the drains and into sewers.”

No such pictures exist.

A handful of diligent researchers—among them Rebecca McFarland, Paul Heimel and Scott Leeson Stoka—have endeavored to shed light on the real Ness and his accomplishments. But even self-proclaimed Ness defender, Douglas Perry—in Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero (2014)—lingers on sordid details of Ness’s supposed womanizing and drinking, with little in the historical record to back him up.

Documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick use Eig as a source for Prohibition (2011), Novick insisting, “Eliot Ness had nothing to do with catching Al Capone. . . . he wrote a book in which he just made stuff up.” Gary Aford of the IRS—singing the praises of tax investigators—told the New York Times, “They don’t write movies about Frank Wilson building the [Capone] tax case.”

Only they did—Undercover Man (1949), directed by B-movie master Joseph H. Lewis of Gun Crazy fame. Starring Glenn Ford as “Frank Warren,” the film—which could have been a dry run for The Untouchables TV series—was based on Frank J. Wilson’s self-aggrandizing article in Collier’s magazine (1947), a hardcover book following in 1965.

Wilson’s boss Elmer Irey wrote (or a ghost writer did, as had been the case with Wilson) his own puffed-up work, The Tax Dodgers (1948), taking credit for busting up the Chicago mob. One wonders if Irey realized, filming a crime-does-not-pay opening scene for T-Men (1947), that Chicago gangster Johnny Roselli was an uncredited producer on the picture, with a ten percent stake.

Neither Frank J. Wilson nor Elmer Irey even mention Eliot Ness in their respective memoirs. Read this book and see if you think that was fair. Add to that the treatment Al Capone got from the Federal government, and we include the questionable conduct of the much-lauded Judge James H. Wilkerson.

In trying to set the record straight, we used decades of Collins/Hagenauer research, including published sources—newspapers, books, long-forgotten true-crime magazines—as well as newly uncovered archival documents and federal files obtained through numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. Trips have been made to libraries, archives, and personal collections in a dozen states as well as the District of Columbia, including the office of the Cook County Medical Examiner.

Coauthor Schwartz has combed through the personnel files of the Untouchables in the historic archives at the ATF’s D.C. headquarters. Brad also made a trip to the small Pennsylvania town where Eliot Ness died, speaking with the last people with living memories of the man. He also spoke with the son of an Untouchable and the grandson of another, and spent an afternoon with George exploring Ness’s old South Side neighborhood, visiting as well Capone’s Miami mansion.

While we have verified much of the Ness/Fraley book, The Untouchables, we do not use it as a source, with the occasional exception of drawing upon Ness’s state of mind in relation to certain incidents.

Neither of our subjects has really gotten a fair shake from history. Our hope is to balance the scales of justice on their behalf. Telling the story of Capone and Ness accurately is our goal—not only is truth stranger than fiction, in this case it’s even more compelling than the many lies and exaggerations visited on both.

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness and the Battle for Chicago will be published on August 14, 2018, by William Morrow.
Copyright 2018, Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz
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One Response to “Untouchable Truth” (by Max Allan Collins)

  1. Jon L. Breen says:

    Great article on what is bound to be a landmark book. Collins gets it right in his fiction, so I would tend to trust his nonfiction.

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