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Eliot Ness: The Real Story

Paul W. Heimel - Knox Books

Book Review By Heather Clisby

In Paul W. Heimel's book, "Eliot Ness: The Real Story", we explore the flesh and blood man behind the famous name. Because Ness has been practically sainted by "The Untouchables" phenomenon that began with his 1957 book of the same name, it's fascinating to explore Ness's history in reality.

One character aspect is made perfectly clear throughout the book, Ness liked to climb that career ladder. He was an ambitious rascal who was ravenous about chasing criminals, detested deskwork and usually neglected his wives, which is why he went through three of them.

Ness is best known for putting Al Capone out of business in Chicago during the nine-year-long Prohibition Era beginning in 1920. Naturally, this is the most interesting part of the book and Heimel does an admirable job of comparing actual events to the rampant hearsay that still adds to the Ness myth.

What most people don't realize is that Ness personally opposed the Volstead Act and was, in fact, a violator himself. Moreover, he faced a basic suicide mission in upholding a law that was widely unpopular with the average citizen.

The lifelong dream of Eliot Ness was to join the FBI but this was not to be, thanks mostly to the paranoid jealousy of Director J. Edgar Hoover, who considered Ness a dangerous and reckless vigilante. Heimel illustrates the irony in observing that, "Ness was the victim of his own success."

Ness went on to become the Public Safety Director for the city of Cleveland. Though crime decreased 38 percent under his watchful eye, the unsolved case of the Mad Butcher serials killings dogged his tenure and made more than a few folks question his effectiveness as a lawman. Eventually, he made a bid for mayor of Cleveland but his political career never got off the ground following a drunk driving incident and a subsequent cover-up attempt.

These post-Capone factoids are interesting because failure never figured into the Eliot Ness mythology that has been created by the media through books, film and television. Ness has been drawn up bigger than life and is even said to be the inspiration for the comic strip "Dick Tracy." I think when Kevin Costner portrayed Ness in the 1987 film, "The Untouchables," that pretty much cinched the deal.

One of his closest friends, Bill Ayers, once spoke of Ness's strict moral code by saying, "They say every man has a price. Well, whatever his price was, it was so high that nobody could pay it."

© 1999 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 12/9/98

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