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Book Author: W. R. Burnett

LITTLE CAESAR by W. R. Burnett: Golden Oldies

There aren’t many books that have sparked an entire genre, but Little Caesar has that distinction.  Written at the end of the 1920s by a previously unpublished author, Little Caesar became an overnight success for W. R. Burnett.  Reading this novel is a terrific way to go back to the beginnings of the original gangster story.

Little Caesar is the nickname of Rico, which in turn is the nickname of Caesar Enrico Bandello, a small-time mobster who climbs nearly to the top in the gangland of late twenties Chicago.  Physically unimposing, small and slightly built, Rico is single-minded about becoming the head of Sam Vettori’s mobsters and moving up the ladder from there. 

Rico doesn’t have the usual vices that many of his colleagues have.  He likes women but not enough to get sidetracked into a serious relationship with any one of them.  He doesn’t touch alcohol or drugs and doesn’t gamble, at least not seriously.  And because of his lack of these vices and his ruthless desire to get to the top, he almost manages to claw his way there.  Almost.

Rico’s biggest concern is that one of his men might “turn yellow.”  Squealing to the cops would be, of course, the worst thing a gang member could do, whether he did it voluntarily or was coerced or tricked into it by the police.  Regardless, there is no excuse for this in Rico’s mind, and he seems to have an uncanny knowledge of which man would turn cowardly and thus be a danger to the group.  He is without pity to those he deems to be any sort of risk.

Little Caesar was made into a film two years after the book was published and made Edward G. Robinson, in the title role, a major star.  Although the movie sticks closely to the plot of the book, there are some differences.  Rico’s best friend in the film is Joe Massara rather than Otero, his best friend in the novel, although in the book Rico never trusts Joe and has no use for him.  In the book Rico has two heterosexual relationships, but in the movie there are subtle homosexual overtones between Rico and Joe and Rico and Otero.

Also, for some Hollywood reason, Rico’s last words in the novel, “Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?,” have been changed in the film to “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” 

Burnett went on to write High Sierra, later made into a Humphrey Bogart film, and The Asphalt Jungle, featuring a very young Marilyn Monroe.  Burnett’s interest in and knowledge of the underworld gave his novels and screenplays a tough, gritty verisimilitude that resonated with readers.  There’s very little description and no deep thought by the characters in Little Caesar, just the chilling talk of a group of killers, led by the coldest one of all. 

You can read more about William Riley Burnett at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.