W. R. Burnett Essay - Critical Essays


In the introduction to the 1958 American reprint of Little Caesar, W. R. Burnett describes the elements out of which he created this career-launching novel. He recalls his arrival in Chicago and describes how the noise, pace, color, violence, and moral anarchy of the city shocked and stimulated him. He went everywhere, taking notes and absorbing the urban atmosphere that he would later use as a background. A scholarly work on a particular Chicago gang (not Capone’s) gave him a basic plotline, the idea of chronicling the rise and fall of an ambitious mobster. From a hoodlum acquaintance, he derived a point of view from which to narrate the story—not the morally outraged view of law-abiding society, as was usually the case in crime stories of the time, but rather the hard-boiled, utterly pragmatic view of the criminal.

These were the essential ingredients on which Burnett’s genius acted as a catalyst. These ingredients can be found in all of his crime fiction: the menacing atmosphere of the modern city, where human predators and prey enact an age-old drama; the extensive knowledge of the underworld and its denizens; the grandiose plans undone by a quirk of fate; the detached tone that suggests a full acceptance of human vice and frailty without overlooking instances of moral struggle and resistance; the sense that criminals are not grotesques or monsters but human beings who respond to the demands of their environment with ruthless practicality; and the colloquial style. Some of the novels focus on the career of a single criminal, while others are more comprehensive in their treatment of crime and society.

Little Caesar

Little Caesar is the story of Cesare “Rico” Bandello, a “gutter Macbeth” as Burnett once referred to him in an interview. Rico comes to Chicago, joins one of the bigger gangs involved in the various lucrative criminal enterprises of the period, and eventually takes over as leader by means of his single-minded ferocity and cleverness. Everything Rico does is directed toward the aggrandizement of his power, influence, and prestige. He has few diversions, distractions, or vices—even the usual ones of mobsters. As he goes from success to success over the bodies of those who get in his way, he aspires to ever-greater glory, until fate intervenes, sending him away from Chicago and into hiding, where eventually he stops a police officer’s bullet.

Rico is a simple but understandable individual: ambitious, austere, deadly. To some degree, the exigencies and opportunities of jazz-age Chicago made such men inevitable, as Burnett clearly suggests in the book. Rico’s story is presented dramatically, in vivid scenes filled with crisp dialogue and the argot of mean streets; this mode of presentation conveys a powerful sense of immediacy, authenticity, and topicality. Just as powerful is the archetypal quality of Burnett’s portrait of Rico, who emerges as the epitome of the underworld overachiever. This combination of the topical and the archetypal was extremely potent; it accounts for the fact that Little Caesar greatly influenced subsequent portrayals of gangsters in the United States.

Organized Crime

Burnett was interested not only in the character and exploits of individuals who chose a life of crime but also in criminal organizations that increasingly were seen to corrupt the American political and legal establishments, especially after the end of World War II. The most extended exploration of this subject is found in his trilogy comprising The Asphalt Jungle (1949), Little Men, Big World (1951), and Vanity Row (1952). These novels dramatize gangland operations and the progressive corruption of a city political administration.

It is important to note that the Kefauver Senate hearings on organized crime in the early 1950’s, which were omnipresent in newspapers, magazines, and on television, made these stories seem particularly timely and authentic. Burnett, however, did not claim to have inside knowledge about a vast, highly organized and hierarchical crime network controlled by the Mafia and linked to Sicily. His underworld is more broadly based and is peopled by many ethnic types as well as by native Americans. In other words, Burnett recognized that crime is rooted in human nature and aspirations and that it should not be attributed—as it often was in the wake of the hearings—to ethnic aberration or foreign conspiracy. The epigraph, taken from the writing of William James, that prefaces The Asphalt Jungle makes this point about human nature: “MAN, biologically considered . . . is the most formidable of all beasts of prey, and, indeed, the only one that preys systematically on its own species.”

The Asphalt Jungle

The setting of The Asphalt Jungle as well as Little Men, Big World and Vanity Row is a midsized, midwestern city that is physically and morally disintegrating. In The Asphalt Jungle, a new police commissioner is appointed to brighten the tarnished image of the city police force to improve the current administration’s chances for reelection. The move is completely cynical on the part of the administration brass, yet the new commissioner does his best against strong resistance and bureaucratic inertia. Paralleling the commissioner’s agonizingly difficult cleanup campaign is the planning and execution of a million-dollar jewelry heist by a team of criminal specialists, who are backed financially by a prominent...

(The entire section is 2278 words.)