Between 1987 and 1993, Max Allan Collins wrote four books starring Eliot Ness, the famed U.S. Treasury agent credited with busting Al Capone as fictionalized in The Untouchables. The Ness paperback series is more historical fiction based on the hero’s law enforcement adventures after prohibition, and the first installment, The Dark City, is an excellent opening novel.
After achieving G-Man fame, Ness separates from the federal government and accepts a post as Director of Public Safety in Cleveland, Ohio. He is tasked with cleaning up the corruption in the Cleveland Police Department while beheading the local crime syndicate with a stranglehold on the city’s lawful functionality. Collins presents Ness as incorruptible, but also human and vulnerable. He forms alliances with a local reporter to gain public support for his anti-graft platform while also feeding his enormous ego with high-profile raids
Collins creates many divergent story threads that he successfully wraps up nicely over the course of the paperback’s 275 pages. There’s a con-man ripping off elderly immigrants in an elaborate bank fraud scheme. There’s Ness’ own deteriorating marriage and his interest in a comely secretary. Meanwhile, he’s also playing beat the clock to make some big police corruption arrests before the city council votes on a new budget. The biggest fish for Ness to identify and catch the shadowy “Outside Chief” who runs a crew of dirty cops like an unidentified crime lord with a badge. To his credit, Collins resolves all these plot threads very neatly allowing The Dark City to stand on its own as a fine mystery novel and not just the first chapter in a serial story.
Collins is an excellent writer, but I miss the first-person narration of his Quarry series. The Quarry books feel subversive and dangerous whereas this Ness paperback feels rather polished and mainstream. There’s a cool cameo from another Collins series character that I won’t spoil here, and the raids that Ness conducts with his handpicked team are the novel’s action highlights.
If you are looking for bone-crunching adventure, maybe this one isn’t for you, but The Dark City a good mystery with plenty of political maneuvering through a dirty bureaucracy and a stalwart hero you can admire. Recommended.