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.