In 1935, Prohibition may have been over, but there was still
some cleanup work to do, and still a lot of illegal booze that made
its way into illegal houses of gambling. Riding high on his success
at putting mobster Al Capone behind bars, Eliot Ness was assigned a
new position --- that of alcohol tax agent in the "Moonshine
Mountains" of Ohio. He and his wife moved to Cleveland, where
newly-elected Mayor Harold Burton soon recognized the benefits
of appointing Ness his Director of Safety to aid in keeping
his campaign promises as a Reform Party candidate. Ness
enthusiastically jumped in to take care of the traffic woes and
police corruption that were nearly paralyzing Cleveland. With his
baby face and his Boy Scout manner, he presented the perfect image
to the public. Besides, everybody knew his name and his reputation
as a true American hero.
But while Ness was attempting to solve the mayor’s
problems, a vicious serial killer had started on a spree. Dubbed
“The Torso Killer” for his gruesome dismemberments, he
left a bloody trail of bodies in his wake. He seemed to be taunting
the authorities, and especially Ness, as he dumped torsos and heads
of victims in areas that would ensure they would be found quickly.
It looked as though Ness had met his match.
Battling this serial killer, the corruption in the police
department, the hangover from Prohibition, the miseries of the
Depression, a city’s desperate need for modernization and a
lonely wife threatening to leave him, Ness had his hands over full.
His boyish optimism could carry him only so far. To make matters
worse, the Torso Murderer, also known as the Mad Butcher of
Kingsbury Run, had hit too close to home when
he sent postcards to Ness. They contained jeering
remarks, a sort of written form of thumbing his nose. But when Ness
realized that the latest postcard did not come through the mail but
was hand delivered, he snapped. The man murdering people already
down on their luck had just sent Ness a personal message.
As Director of Safety, Ness thought his job was to reduce
traffic accidents, stop illegal sales of booze and put a halt to
gambling. He didn’t want any involvement in the sensational
murder case --- that is, until it touched a raw nerve. And once
assigned to him, he launched himself into it as doggedly as he
pursued Capone. But the Torso Murderer turned out to be
Ness’s true nemesis. Officially, the case was never solved.
Just how much of William Bernhardt’s novel is made up? We
may never know, for it has an excellent basis in fact and much of
the speculation has its roots in truth. He presents a
persuasive case for the probable identity of the killer. So
what kept Ness from bringing him in? The torso murder case had to
have frustrated him to the end of his days.
William Bernhardt has a winning combination in NEMESIS. He has
pitted America’s first real-life serial killer against one of
America’s favorite heroes. Claiming at least a dozen victims,
the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run terrorized the citizens of
Cleveland at a time when many were already beleaguered by the
Depression. Full of great period detail, right down to the nuances
of the time and the place, NEMESIS is a compelling page-turner.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 12, 2011