Picks and Pans Review: Torso

updated 06/19/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/19/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Steven Nickel

As this book of crime history begins, U.S. Treasury agent Eliot Ness arrives in Cleveland in 1934 fresh from a full frontal demolition of Al Capone's Chicago mob. His leadership of the Untouchables—as his unit was first called by the Chicago underworld—earned him a reputation as the country's best crime fighter. A year later he seemed to a new city administration perfect for the job of director of public safety for Cleveland, a city that had become a haven for corruption, gambling and extortion rings. Ness, 32, was given total control of the police and fire departments and within weeks had made significant inroads toward cleansing a system on the brink of collapse. Another successful Ness saga was ready to be written.

Or so it seemed. Four months before Ness was appointed, a dismembered body had been found in Cleveland. Soon, decomposed bodies started cropping up all over town, most of the victims members of the hobo jungles that dotted the Cleveland landscape during the Depression. Ness, faced with an unseen opponent, embarked on the most intensive murder investigation in Ohio history and came up empty. The tabloids called the elusive madman the Torso Murderer and credited him with at least a dozen murders. He was one of the country's first publicized serial killers, a sly, cunning foe and a more-than-equal match for a methodical detective like Ness.

Torso focuses on the fruitless 6½ years spent by Ness trying to catch the killer. The story flows smoothly, detailing, albeit in sordid, purple prose, the frustrations felt by Ness as he tried to nail a man who refused to be caught. "The lawmen explored every building, house, and hovel within the sprawling, decaying precinct. They found firetraps galore, people sleeping on floors, vagrants dwelling in abandoned buildings, whole families jammed into a single room and houses without toilets or water. But amid the squalor and misery, they found no trace of the Torso Murderer." Nickel, a free-lance writer, has a flat prose, heavy on the adjectives, weak on structure. His style is a burden. In the hands of a better stylist, this little-known story would be more potent. But despite its flaws, the book sustains a great deal of interest, portraying Ness as an ambitious, idealistic man, expert in using the press to enhance his glowing reputation. This case, however, became his Waterloo, a stumbling block from which he never recovered.

For the first time Ness had failed, and the public, having wasted little time in building him up, was equally quick to turn on him. The killer was never caught; Ness left his highly publicized post a failure. In 1947, he ran for Mayor of Cleveland and was defeated. He died in 1957, an obscure, neglected and bitter man. It wasn't until five months after his death that Ness's book, The Untouchables, was published. The TV series soon followed, and Ness was once again a national hero. (John F. Blair, $18.95)

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