Title: Bullet Proof: An Eliot Ness Mystery
Author: Max Allan Collins
Format: Paperback edition by Bantam Books
If you’re a reader of modern mystery at all, particularly the private detective novel, then Max Allan Collins is a name that should be familiar. Most recently known as the writer to inherit the work of Mickey Spillane and the mantle of Mike Hammer to go with it, Collins has had a long career of his own. Known by many as the author of Road to Perdition or as the scribe of the Nate Heller, Quarry, and Mallory book series, or even as a one time scribe of the Dick Tracy comic strip, Collins also has another series under his belt, one featuring real life ‘super cop’ Eliot Ness.
Bullet Proof is the third of three Eliot Ness books written by Collins. The premise of the series follows Ness to Cleveland, Ohio, where he becomes the city’s Director of Public Safety after his storied career as an Untouchable in Chicago. Although technically the third book, Bullet Proof actually takes place in the midst of the timeline of the second Ness novel in the series, Butcher’s Dozen.
The novel opens in 1937 with Cleveland in the grip of Union troubles. A town built on Unions, Cleveland is currently suffering under a strike, one that is threatening to explode violently. Ness and his men are being pulled from both sides, encouraged heavily to back the common man in the Unions while also being nearly ordered to support the city’s money men, to back the companies. Deciding to do neither, but instead whatever is required to do his job, Ness in a sense goes against both sides in the struggle, while still trying to keep whatever remains of peace. As he does this, he uncovers an extortion plot within the strike that puts not only the entire city at risk, but businesses, individual livelihoods, and Ness himself. Two men bent on making themselves rich pose as much threat to Ness as Capone did in his day, both politically and physically. It falls to Ness to find out who they are, get the evidence necessary to stop them, and keep the loss of blood and life to zero, if possible.
Every book in this series is gold. Max Allan Collins is perhaps the best hand at taking solid crime and mystery stories and blending them almost seamlessly into actual history. Real characters stride alongside the fictional in Bullet Proof, and some amalgams of several real life types join the mix as well. Bullet Proof is as much about the political and man Eliot Ness is as it is about the policeman he wants to be. Set in the most stressful time of Ness’ tenure in Cleveland, that being in the middle of the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run case (the subject of the the second book), Bullet Proof is complete with every bit of action and adventure you’d want from a 1930s noir mystery type book, and actually pretty well delivers on the mystery, in a police procedural sense.
Collins definitely also captures the best and worst of Eliot Ness. Known to be sort of a glory hog by some, Ness also made his mark as a good detective and effective leader throughout his career. Collins tackles both of these aspects and deals with them exceedingly well, showing us a man with his own flaws ready to utilize them to further what is best for the city he is assigned to protect. Combine this with Collins’ other fantastic characterizations, and the story is a solidly balanced well plotted novel that delivers on every note.
Five pages isn’t enough for not only Bullet Proof, the worst of the three books if such thing is possible, but the entire Ness trilogy is top of the line.
A fully loaded six out of six bullets makes Bullet Proof a surefire hit, giving fans of historical fiction, mystery, and straight up crime action everything they could ask for.