Nemesis: The Final Case of Eliot Ness
Eliot Ness, the real-life lawman who took down Al Capone, is appointed Safety Director of Cleveland, a city that in 1935 is rife with corruption and crime. Although he is determined to fight the organized criminals that run illegal gambling and smuggle hooch from the rural districts, as well as installing traffic lights to reduce the number of traffic fatalities, his activities are thrust into the shade by the Torso Murderer. This vicious madman is America’s first known serial killer. Ness succumbs to pressure from a frightened populace and vows that he will catch the killer.
Bernhardt is a skillful writer of thrillers and detective fiction. He creates suspense well and keeps the reader guessing almost until the end. In the afterword, he states that the minor characters were largely conflations of several individuals, and it’s clear that he’s a little more comfortable writing for those characters he has invented than for the famous Ness himself. It is the hard-working police sergeant, Merylo, who ends up the most sympathetic character in the book, while others remain superficial.
Unfortunately, Ness himself seems not to develop at all, maintaining his stubbornness toward both his work and his personal life, losing our sympathy in long scenes where he is so clueless about the way he behaves toward his lonely wife that it’s tempting to skim over those passages and get back to the action.
Overall, the book is a satisfying, lightweight thriller, although a little anti-climactic because of the need to adhere to history, and will appeal to those interested in the post-Prohibition, pre-World War II era in the U.S.