W.R. Burnett knew, first-hand, of the world he describes in his terse, vivid 1929 novel with a brutally ironic title-Little Caesar. Burnett worked as reporter in Chicago in the 1920s, and he observed the nobodies willing to cheat and kill their way to being somebodies. The novel's hero, Cesare Bandello, known as Rico, is a "gutter Macbeth," a bad guy who claws his way up through the Chicago gang, circa 1928. Though the very idea of Rico is inseparable from Edward G. Robinson's star-making performance in the 1930 film version of Little Caesar, Burnett's novel is an fuller experience, inspired in many ways by Machiavelli's The Prince. There is nothing heroic about Rico. He is not dashing or even an especially talented man, except that he seems to have a laser-like focus on what he wants. That immediately sets him apart from the slovenly hoods who surround him. His rise above them is easy to imagine, but as the novel's title suggests, so is his fall.
Rico has a discipline and an energy that keep him from being distracted by petty jealousies and appetites, like most of his comrades. He is a cold, clear-eyed student of human nature who grows too sure of his mastery of the inferiors who surround him. That bit of hubris is ultimately his undoing. Rico grows a little too smug and satisfied with his success. He forgets that he has prevailed in a jungle, where the laws of survival are immutable and unsparing, even of a little Caesar.
Reading Burnett is like downing a shot of whiskey-bracing and unmistakable, with a gratifying sting. At the distance of more than 70 years, Little Caesar remains a lean and mesmerizing character study that gets inside of Rico without ever attempting to make the reader like or understand him. Though it might not seem remarkable now, this perspective seemed to break new ground at the time. Little Caesar casts an
amazing shadow. William Faulkner was influenced by the novel while writing Sanctuary, as was Graham Greene while writing Brighton Rock.
Burnett once told an interviewer that Horace Thompson, who wrote the existentialist novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, said Little Caesar convinced him that he wanted to be a writer. It is no surprise that Burnett wound up in Hollywood, a successful screenwriter, as he continued to write novels. His style is a remarkable if often overlooked jewel of American genre fiction, and it helped shape the popular culture of the 20th century.
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April 30, 2005
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Excerpt from Little Caesar by W. R. Burnett
Sam Vettori sat staring down into Halstead Street. He was a big man, fat as a hog, with a dark oily complexion, kinky black hair and a fat aquiline face. In repose he had an air of lethargic good-nature, due entirely to his bulk; for in reality he was sullen, bad tempered and cunning. From time to time he dragged out a huge gold watch and looked at it with raised eyebrows and pursed lips.
Near him at a round table sat Otero, called The Greek, Tony Passa and Sam Vettoris lieutenant, Rico, playing stud for small stakes. Under the green-shaded lamp Otero's dark face looked livid and cavernous. He sat immobile and said nothing, win or lose. Tony, robust and rosy, scarcely twenty years old, watched each turn of the cards intently, shouting with joy when his luck was good, cursing when it was bad, more out of excitement than interest in the stakes. Rico sat with his hat tilted over his eyes, his pale thin face slightly drawn, his fingers tapping. Rico always played to win.
Vettori, puffing, pulled himself to his feet and began to walk up and down.
"Where you suppose he is?" he asked the ceiling. "I told him eight o'clock. It is half-past."
"Joe never knows what time it is," said Tony.
"Joe's no good," said Rico without taking his eyes off the cards. "He's soft."
"Well," said Vettori, stopping to watch the game out of boredom, "maybe so. But we can't do without him, Rico. I tell you, Rico, he can go anywhere. A front is what he's got. Swell hotel's What does it mean to that boy? He says to the clerk, I would like please a suite. A suite! You see, Rico. We can't do without him."
Rico tapped on the table, flushing slightly.
"All right, Sam," he said, "some day he'll turn yellow. Hear what I say. He's not right. What's all this dancing? A man don't dance for money."
"Oh, Rico! You don't know Joe."
Tony stared at Rico.
"Rico," he said, "Joe's right. I know what I'm saying. All that dancing is a front. He's smart. Have they ever got him once?"
Rico slammed down his cards. He hated Joe and he knew that Tony and Vettori knew it.
"All right," he said, "hear what I say. Hell turn yellow some day. A man don't take money for dancing."
"I win," said Otero.
Rico pushed the money toward him and got to his feet.
"Well, if he don't show up in ten minutes I'll take the air," said Rico.
"You stay where you are," said Vettori, his face hardening.
Tony watched the two of them intently. Otero counted his money. One day Vettori had said to Rico, "Rico, you are getting too big for us." Tony remembered the look he had seen in Rico's eyes. Lately they had all been talking about it. Rico was getting too big for them. Scabby, the informer, said: "Tony, mark what I say. It's Rico or Sam. One or the other."
"I'll stay ten minutes," said Rico.
Vettori sat down by the window and stared into Halstead Street.
"Two-fifty," said Otero.
"I'll match you for it," said Tony.
"No," said Otero.
Joe Massara opened the door and came in.
"Well," said Vettori, "you call this eight o'clock?"
Joe got out of a big ulster. He was in evening clothes. His black hair was sleek and parted in the middle. He was vain of his resemblance to the late Mr. Rudolph Valentino.