Normally I review only film-related books on this site, but I’ve just devoured two volumes written by friends that I can’t resist writing about. One is a work of fiction, the other non-fiction. When I finished reading them I picked up a movie-related biography I’d been meaning to get to for months. The result: three enthusiastic endorsements.
Scarface and the Untouchable (William Morrow) is the latest tome by Max Allan Collins and his new writing partner A. Brad Schwartz. Collins is one of my favorite authors, and I’ve long been a fan of his true-crime novels featuring private eye Nathan Heller. He has spent so much time rooting around the world of 20th century American crime that he is the ideal person to tackle this dual biography of Al Capone and his nemesis, Eliot Ness. He has been aided and abetted by a young admirer-turned-collaborator who has pulled his weight, and then some. Together they have crafted a vividly detailed chronicle of Capone’s rise to prominence in the underworld and his domination of Chicago during the Prohibition era. This juicy narrative is told alongside the story of Ness, the man who was hired to bring Capone down. He was a straight-arrow investigator who was incorruptible—a rare quality in a world populated with crooks of all stripes. (Older readers will remember his portrayal by Robert Stack on the hit TV series The Untouchables.) This hefty, annotated volume is a page-turner, as gripping as any novel. The authors know how to get the most out of every incident they describe without resorting to hype. The facts are colorful enough. What’s more, Collins and Schwartz have reached different conclusions than the accepted truths found in previous accounts—and can back up their claims. (To that end, anyone who still labors under the illusion that “everything” is available online should read the authors’ acknowledgments to see how many different archives they visited around the country. Some research still requires boots on the ground.) What a great saga this is.
Howard A. Rodman is a colleague of mine at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where he has taught screenwriting for a number of years. He wrote a movie I’m fond of, Joe Gould’s Secret (2000) and has long been active in the Writers Guild of America and the Sundance Institute Screenwriting Labs. But nothing he has done could have prepared me for The Great Eastern (Melville Press), his glorious and expansive new novel. It features three protagonists, one of them a real-life figure of the 19th century (celebrated British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel) and two fictional men, Captain Ahab and Captain Nemo. How Rodman interweaves their stories is difficult to describe but delicious to encounter. One might characterize this as a Very Tall Tale, told in a deliberately florid manner and filled with grandiloquent language. I don’t think I’ve ever had to consult a dictionary so often while reading a book, but I didn’t think of it as a hurdle or interruption: it enhanced the uniqueness of my reading experience. Rodman explains in an afterword that he was influenced by Jules Verne and Herman Melville, but the resulting work is his and his alone. I loved spending the better part of a week immersed in this singular book.
Finally, I got around to reading Victoria Riskin’s graceful and loving biography of her parents, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir (Pantheon), which was published earlier this year. Having read Wray’s autobiography, On the Other Hand when it came out, I thought I knew her story reasonably well, but there is much more to it than I ever imagined. She had a deeply troubled upbringing and a harrowing first marriage, to alcoholic screenwriter John Monk Saunders. That she kept her composure both publicly and privately says a lot about the stuff she was made of. Victoria became especially close to her mother in her later years and is justifiably proud of what this remarkable woman overcame to live a full and rewarding life into her 90s. Having lost her father when she was a child, Riskin is resolute in conveying his many attributes, giving him the credit he deserves as a doting dad and husband, one of the great writers of Hollywood’s golden age, and an organizer of his peers in what was then called the Screen Writers Guild. She is admirably restrained in discussing Frank Capra, who outlived his partner in making such great films as Lady for a Day, It Happened One Night, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and went on to claim credit for everything to do with those pictures. There is so much to admire about both subjects that it’s a pleasure to engage with them in this warm and edifying biography. It earns my highest recommendation.