William Riley Burnett was born in Springfield, Ohio, on November 25, 1899, of old American stock. He attended grammar schools in Springfield and Dayton, high school in Columbus, and preparatory school in Germantown, Ohio. He was an adequate student and an avid athlete. In 1919, he enrolled in the college of journalism at Ohio State University but stayed for only one semester. In 1920, he married Marjorie Louise Bartow; they were divorced in the early 1940’s. In 1943, he married Whitney Forbes Johnstone; they had two sons.
From 1920 to 1927, Burnett worked in an office as a statistician for the Bureau of Labor Statistics; he hated office work but hung on while he tried tirelessly, but fruitlessly, to establish himself as a writer. Frustrated with his situation, he left Ohio for Chicago in 1927, taking a job as a night clerk in a seedy hotel. Bootlegging, prostitution, violence, and corruption were rampant at the time. Rival gangs indiscriminately carried out their territorial wars with tommy guns and explosives. Al Capone was king. The impact on Burnett’s imagination was profound. Gradually, he came to know and understand the city and found in it the material and outlook he needed to become a successful writer.
Little Caesar (1929), Burnett’s first published novel, quickly became a best seller. The film rights were purchased by Warner Bros., and the film version, which appeared in 1931, was a sensational success. In 1930, Burnett went west to California and worked as a screenwriter to subsidize his literary endeavors. He remained in California for the rest of his life.
Burnett had a long, productive, and financially rewarding career in films. He worked with some of Hollywood’s best writers, directors, and actors. He also wrote scripts for a number of popular television series in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Nevertheless, he was first and foremost a writer of fiction, producing more than thirty novels and several shorter works during a career that spanned five decades.
Burnett wrote many novels outside the mystery and detective genre, stories dealing with a wide variety of subjects—boxing, dog racing, political campaigns, fascism in the 1930’s, eighteenth century Ireland, the modern West Indies, the American frontier, and others. His strength, however, was as a writer of crime fiction; on this his reputation rests securely. In 1980, he was honored by the Mystery Writers of America with the Grand Masters Award. He died in California on April 25, 1982.