cover image Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero

Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero

Douglas Perry. Viking, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-670-02588-6

Though he’s now a revered as the lawman who helped bring down the Chicago Mob and Al Capone, Eliot Ness was all but forgotten by the time he died, virtually penniless, in 1957, at age 55. Ironically, a book touting his dramatic efforts would hit stores just six months later. With a shrewd mix of drama, insight, and objectivity, Perry (The Girls of Murder City) artfully chronicles the life of the leader of the “Untouchables” squad and illuminates his subject’s complicated worldview, passions, and faults. An introverted misfit and perfectionist, Ness perpetually felt like an outsider until he found his way to the nascent Prohibition Bureau. Under constant threat of violence, particularly in the early days, Ness thrived, leading his department on daring raids in a tireless effort to take down Capone, something Ness would later characterize as an obsession. Though he later made great strides fighting crime and corruption as public safety director in Cleveland (though the pursuit of a sadistic serial killer proved elusive), he would never regain the esteem he once enjoyed. By WWII, Ness was scraping for work. After an unsuccessful effort to become mayor of Cleveland, Ness all but gave up. A drunken ramble in the presence of a reporter led to the publication of his biography, which turned out to be too little too late to save the real Ness, though it did much to burnish his posthumous fame—a cruel twist to a story full of them. Photos. Agent: Jim Donovan, Jim Donovan Literary.(Feb.)