Contemporary writers and readers of serious crime fiction, meet the grandfather you never knew—W.R. Burnett. Born in 1899, he single-handedly invented narrative forms that would be thought of as innovative when other writers used them into the 21st Century.
Have you seen Little Caesar, the first of the great gangster films? If you read this magazine, I would guess that as soon as you read the question, you got a mental image of Edward G. Robinson as Rico, and you probably heard his shrill, near-hysterical voice too.
How about The Asphalt Jungle? High Sierra? You probably got mental images from those classic noir films too. But they were all novels first, and the novels are strikingly different from the films.
How many films have there been about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, AZ? The first novel about that incident was Burnett’s Saint Johnson, published in 1930 (one of two novels he had published that year).
As well as his 35 novels, Burnett wrote screenplays, around 60 of them, including Scarface, The Great Escape, and Arrowhead. Many of his screenplays were based on his novels; The Asphalt Jungle has been filmed four times, High Sierra three times. But Burnett the novelist and Burnett the screenwriter were very different creatures. As a novelist, he not only invented the contemporary crime novel—his influence can be observed in every realistic urban novel, film and TV show. If I hadn’t read him (and I hadn’t until recently), I would assume that anyone making such a claim for him was being hyperbolic, especially since he’s now so forgotten. But the truth is, if you’re a crime writer who does anything other than cozies or straight-up procedurals, you’re influenced by Burnett whether you’ve ever heard of him or not.
Quentin Tarantino, whose first film, Reservoir Dogs, begins with a bunch of career criminals sitting around talking about Madonna and bickering and bantering with one another, has acknowledged the influence of Elmore Leonard, who in turn has acknowledged the influence of George V. Higgins and W.C. Heinz. Burnett’s first novel, Little Caesar, published in 1929, has an opening chapter comprised almost entirely of dialogue, as a bunch of hoods sit around a table and shoot the shit. As the novel continues, almost everything that isn’t dialogue is pure narrative. If it weren’t for the slang of that period—which makes for fascinating reading—it could have been written today. As I read it, I realized, with shock, that Burnett had invented the crime novel as it’s now written by George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, and invented the narrative style of such TV shows as The Wire.
Elmore Leonard, speaking of his own novels—which jettison description in favor of dialogue and narrative—said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” He also said he left out anything the reader might skip over. Burnett, speaking of Little Caesar, said: “What I did was… throw out everything that they’d put in novels before… and use… practically no description at all. Everything shown through action and dialogue, and… in the language of the people. Not literary English at all. Just American English, the kind that people actually speak.” He said that Little Caesar came as a shock to critics and readers, because there had never been anything like it. Now, more than 80 years laters later, there’s hardly a good crime story that’s not like it. The novels of George V. Higgins, such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Cogan’s Trade, seem far less innovative when you realize his style had been invented 50 years earlier.
W.C. Heinz’s first novel, The Professional, was published in 1958. As I wrote in this column, it’s one of the great novels about boxing. Ernest Hemingway called it “the only good novel I’ve ever read about a fighter, and an excellent novel in its own right.” Its ending is shocking in its heartbreaking suddenness—and it’s almost identical to the climax of Burnett’s novel Iron Man, published in 1930. More, in its depiction of the drudgery of professional sport, and of boxers, managers and crooks as working stiffs, it’s also similar to—and better than—The Professional, a book that provoked Elmore Leonard to write Heinz a fan letter.
It seems improbable that Heinz could have been unfamiliar with Burnett’s work, which was ubiquitous in those days. Burnett was one of the best-known, and wealthiest, writers of his time. And he was certainly the first crime (and Western) writer whose work “transcended genre,” as literary critics now like to say about any genre writer they’re embarrassed to admit that they like. After winning a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1980, he remarked, “I never wrote a mystery in my life.”
His protagonists rarely have much in the way of redeeming qualities. Bannon, the “hero” of Arrowhead played by Charlton Heston, is a venomous racist, who refers to the corpse of a woman as “a dead Indian” and tells his underlings to take “it” out. And yet, though we never like Bannon, we stay with him till the end of this nasty little film, because we ride along with him as a companion, as a human being. We believe he’s real.
In the film Little Caesar, it’s made clear that Rico is gay and tormented by it. This is not the case in the novel, and Burnett was chagrined by the change. Not, as far as anyone knows, because he was homophobic (though he may have been), but more likely because it lost the focus of the book, which is about the criminal as an ordinary, ambitious careerist, no different than someone trying to advance in any corporate setting. It would be quite easy to tell the same story and set it in the “legitimate” business world. The title of the novel is apt, because, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it’s about people and politics, not crime. The character of Rico in the novel has more in common with The Wire’s Stringer Bell or Justified’s Boyd Crowder than with Edward G. Robinson. The epigraph to the book is from Machiavelli: “The first law of every being is to preserve itself and live. You sow hemlock, and expect to see ears of corn ripen.”
So what happened to William Riley Burnett? How could the writer who’s had the most influence on realistic novels and films have become so obscure? How did a man who was asked to write the Rat Pack vehicle Robin and the Seven Hoods—and turned down the offer—fade away?
Two reasons. The first is that, though his writing was well-known, Burnett himself wasn’t a celebrity. There have been no biographies; the closest has been a short overview of his life by David Laurence Wilson that serves at the introduction to a bundling of two novels put out by Stark House in 2009. He had little or no public life. He was an unremarkable man who happened to be a great and seminal writer.
The second reason contains a lesson for writers today. Burnett never stopped writing, but for decades he stopped publishing. Not because he couldn’t get published, but because he was a reactionary and a snob who refused to accept that publishing was changing. He had come up in the era of hardcovers, and in the 1960s he balked at being published in paperback originals, especially when his books were cut to fit the shorter form of the pulp paperback. When that happened when The Cool Man was published as a Gold Medal paperback in 1968, Burnett essentially stomped his foot, took his toys and went home. He continued to write, but didn’t publish another book until Goodbye, Chicago, published in 1982—the year he died. If he’d been born later, he’d certainly have insisted on hardcovers or trade paperbacks instead of ebooks. And so he can be credited with yet another innovation—the literary hissy fit that’s currently hindering the careers of so many authors.