This column generally passes on true crime, but an exception can be made for a superior example like Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz’s “Scarface and the Untouchable” (Morrow, 736 pp., $27.99). When the subject is this fascinating and the telling so expertly done, it’s hard to resist.
Scarface, of course, was the Chicago gangster Al Capone, and the Untouchable were his sworn enemies: the lawmen, under the leadership of Eliot Ness, charged with stopping him. Together Capone and Ness epitomized the wide-open era of Prohibition: speakeasies, sin, bootlegging, gang warfare and the like in America during the 1920s and early ’30s.
The story’s been told before, and those conversant with the subject won’t find much revelatory material. But Collins (a prolific crime-fiction writer) and Schwartz (a historian) tell it well, wisely focusing on two wildly different personalities: the outgoing, sometimes strangely generous and frequently ruthless Capone and the relentless, righteous Ness.
Considering its 550 pages of text, plus extensive notes and bibliography, reading the book is a major commitment. But for anyone interested in this eternally interesting historical period, it’s essential.
Turning back to fiction: “The Sinners” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 384 pp., $27) is the latest in Ace Atkins’ expert and reliable series about Quinn Colson, the resourceful sheriff of (fictional) Tibbehah County — the “armpit” of Mississippi, as Atkins styles it.
Marriage is imminent for Colson, uniting him with his love Maggie Powers and her 7-year-old son. The prospect of family life causes the cop to reconsider his dangerous and all-consuming job, but change isn’t going to happen soon.
First he has to deal with Heath Pritchard, an elderly pot grower and part of a nasty family of hooligans and crooks. The old coot needs their help in disposing of a rival he killed.
Atkins’ books are filled with vivid characters like Pritchard. Another is Fannie Hathcock, who owns the best cathouse in the county, runs a lucrative money-laundering business and has a long history with the sheriff.
Also in the mix is Colson’s Army buddy, Boom Kimbrough, plus a tough young DEA agent, Nathalie Wilkins, who has her own drug-ring-busting agenda.
“The Sinners” may not be the best in the series, and (as with most series) neophytes might want to start at the beginning: the characters get more richly developed as things progress. But this is still an exciting and often darkly funny ride.
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