Friday, October 13, 2017

Forgotten Books: LITTLE CAESAR by W.R. Burnett (1929)

I've had a dozen or so W.R. Burnett books kicking around for thirty-odd years, but never got around to reading one. Well, thanks to Mr. David Laurence Wilson, I finally did. And whaddaya know? It was mighty dang good. Much obliged, David.

(And it wasn't until I'd written that paragraph and decided to take a gander at a Burnett bibliography that I realized I did read one of his books, called Saint Johnson, just a few years ago, and blabbed about it right here in Forgotten Books. But I hadn't read that one because Burnett wrote it, but because it was loosely based on Wyatt Earp. And it wasn't one of those I had kicking around the house, because I had to seek it out via InterLibrary Loan. Anyway, you can see what I thought of it HERE.)

First edition (wish I had one!)

Burnett is inescapably linked to Hollywood. Along with Little Caesar, many of his other novels were made into films, including such classics as High Sierra, Dark Hazard, Dark Command, The Asphalt Jungle, and four versions of the aforementioned Saint Johnson (as "Law and Order" and "Wild West Days"). He also wrote screenplays for films like "This Gun for Hire," and "The Great Escape," and both story and screenplay for "Segeants 3." Did some TV writing, too, for "77 Sunset Strip," "The Untouchables," "The Virginian," and "Bonanza," among others. Busy guy. All this, while publishing at least 37 novels over the amazing span of 52 years - 1929 to 1981. 

Little Caesar was Burnett's first published novel, and he got off to a hell of a start. It's the tersely-told tale of a punk kid Italian from Youngstown, Ohio whose ability with and willingness to use a gun takes him almost to the heights of the Chicago underworld. Known only as "Rico" through most of the book, we eventually learn his given name is Cesare Bandello, hence the title of the book. It's no-frills prose from start to finish, more spare than either Hammett or Hemingway, and was likely a major inspiration for Paul Cain's Fast One. It's a hard, fast read, and well worth your attention.

In an Introduction written for a later edition, Burnett told how he had gone to Chicago, walked the streets and taken notes until the right gimmick (his word) came to him:

The novel should be a picture of the world as seen through the eyes of a gangster. All conventional feelings, desires, and hopes should be rightly excluded. Further, the book should be written in a style that suited the subject matter -- that is, in the illiterate jargon of the Chicago gangster. I threw overboard what had been known up to then as "literature," I declared war on adjectives. I jettisoned "description." I tried to tell the story entirely through narration and dialogue, letting the action speak for itself. I also jettisoned "psychology" -- and I tried hard to suppress myself and all of my opinions. 

Well, if those were his goals, he certainly succeeded. The novel was innovative, and very well done, and, as Burnett says, it "made" him. Still, the book was not written in a vacuum, and I have to wonder how much he owed to Black Mask. Hammett and others had been moving in that direction since 1922. Hammett alone had made about forty appearances, and his hardest-boiled opus, Red Harvest, published in hardcover in 1929 (the same year as Little Caesar) had been serialized in Black Mask in 1927 and '28. Maybe Burnett read the mag and maybe he didn't, but he could hardly have been unaware of it. 

Next up for me, Burnett-wise: A viewing of the film version of Little Caesar, then another of those books that have been waiting so long. Probably Dark Hazard.


Elgin Bleecker said...

Good question about Burnett’s influences. It seems most of the hard-boiled writers came out of either BLACK MASK or the newspapers of the 1920s. But Burnett, from what I’ve read, did not come out of either. BTW, I wrote about Burnett for FFB about a week ago.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read this one, but I really enjoyed Burnett's "High Sierra" and "The Asphalt Jungle."