W. R. Burnett Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

W. R. Burnett was a prolific novelist and screenwriter. His most popular and enduring work was in the area of crime fiction, a subgroup within the mystery and detective genre. Burnett helped to shape and refine the conventions of the hard-boiled crime novel—a type of fiction that seems particularly suited to dramatizing the garish and violent urban world of the twentieth century. His novels and films are rich with underworld characters, scenes, and dialogue that would become the stock-in-trade of other writers; in the popular imagination, his work was a revelation of how mobsters and modern outlaws thought, acted, and spoke in the urban jungle.

Burnett knew gangsters, did extensive research on some of them, and made a close study of crime’s causes and effects. He sought in his works to present the criminal outlook and criminal activity in a direct and dramatic fashion, without explicit authorial comment or judgment. He believed that crime is an inevitable part of society, given human frailties and desires, and that it must be seen in its own terms to be understood. This belief explains the shock caused by many of his novels on first publication and his occasional difficulties with film censors. Burnett’s crime stories, then, are characterized by a sense of objectivity, authenticity, and revelation. They realistically convey the glittery surface and shadowy depths of American society.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Faragoh, Francis Edward. Little Caesar: Screenplay. Special ed. Eye, Suffolk, England: ScreenPress Books, 2001. Special, updated edition of the screenplay adaptation of Burnett’s novel that brought him lasting fame.

Horsley, Lee. The Noir Thriller. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Scholarly treatise on the thriller genre discussing five of Burnett’s novels, from Little Caesar to Underdog. Bibliography and index.

Madden, David, ed. Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979. Collection of scholarly essays about the hard-boiled subgenre and its practitioners; provides insight into Burnett’s works.

Mate, Ken, and Pat McGilligan. “Burnett: An Interview.” Film Comment 19 (January/February, 1983): 59-68. Interview with Burnett focusing on his many years in Hollywood and his experiences with the studios over four decades.

Moore, Lewis D. Cracking the Hard-Boiled Detective: A Critical History from the 1920’s to the Present. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. Places Burnett’s work in the context of the other writers of hard-boiled detective fiction and helps chart the changes in his work over time as a function of the changes in the wider subgenre.

Seldes, Gilbert. Foreword to Little Caesar. New York: Dial Press, 1958. Foreword to Burnett’s first detective novel by the editor of The Dial, discussing Burnett and his work’s importance to the genre.