Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book Review: Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett

Little Caesar W.R. BurnettSo you read this old, relatively obscure crime novel--Little Caesar. It's got that kind of hipster cachet that comes from the fact that not many people have read it. But at the same time it's often hailed as the first real crime noir novel. It's about Chicago mobsters of the 1920s, and a movie based on the book was made in the 1930s.

You start reading the book and it doesn't really grab you at first. Sure, there's cool slang from the era. Like a gun is called a "gat" and gangsters say things like "I don't wanna get my neck stretched" (i.e., get done for murder and sentenced to death--they still hanged people in most states back then).

Almost everyone has a nickname. Some gangster's girlfriend is called Seal Skin, and someone else is called Big Boy, there's a Scabby, a Blackie, and a Killer Pepi. And even the main character, Rico--that isn't his real name. You don't find out until near the end of the story that his real name is Cesare Bandello.

But you keep reading because the book really isn't that long. And generally when people say good things about a book, you tend to take note and think that there must be something to it.

The book creeps up on you. You realize that it's written in a way that isn't as easily accessible as today's crime novels. That doesn't mean it has dense sections with long sentences. In fact, it's very straight forward with sparse writing and tight dialogue. It has a kind of rhythm that might take readers of today a while to get accustomed to. It's just that W.R. Burnett wrote things that writers of today don't write.


What about the story? It's about a group of mobsters in Chicago. It focuses on an up and comer named Rico who grabs the leadership after he has been around for a while and he helps pull off this caper, see? So Rico, this bird who's the boss on this caper, pops a bull, and then takes charge of the gang in Little Italy. Then the noose slowly starts tightening on him as he realizes that as soon as you're at the top there are going to be others gunning for you. And you can never rest. Just as quickly as he make his move, he is on the run after one of his gang turns soft and gives it up to the bulls, see? He doesn't want to get his neck stretched, so he moves on to get away from the heat.


It's about the protracted lives that criminals of that sort lead. The fact that they know that the end could come at any moment, but there's nothing else to do but keep living like that. It is also about how different characters deal with the reality of the life they have chosen, and how they react when the heat is on and the prospect of life behind bars or the death penalty looms.

A grim kind of fatalism comes through in how different characters face down the inevitable: some choose to die in the streets in shoot-outs with the police, others would rather run and try to begin again in another city, while others have had enough and accept that they are going down.

The dialogue and the characters are the book. There aren't many descriptive passages here. And aside from the mobsters there isn't any real sense of the Chicago of the 1920s in which the novel takes place.

Rico--Little Caesar--is everything those around him are not. He's disciplined--doesn't drink, doesn't fall for dames--while most everyone else has an obvious vice. Though he isn't without weakness: he's quick on the draw and quick to put a bullet in someone. Maybe that too is overcompensation for his appearance, not what you would expect in a feared gangster:
He had none of the outward signs of greatness. Neither the great strength and hairiness of Pepi, nor the dash and effrontery of Ottavio Vettori, nor the maniacal temper of Joe Sansone. He was small, pale and quiet.

Gangster Patois

The gangster patois really sings:
"Gonna stick to your dago buddy, are you? Well, he's got the jack. But what're you gonna do when you need a guy that's got the guts?"

This was too much for Rico. He said:

"What do you know about guts? I guess you ain't so tough or they wouldn't've run you out of Chi."

"Will you listen to that!" said Red. "All right, buddy, you said your piece and you sure spoke out of turn. Why, dago, where I come from you wouldn't live five minutes. Now I'm gonna show you how they treat smart dagos in Chi."

Red made a motion towards his coat pocket, but Rico beat him to it. He pulled his gun from the holster under his armpit and covered Red.

"Red," he said, "in Chicago I wouldn't let you rob filling-stations for me."

Red stood with his hands up, looking from Rico to Chiggi.

"Don't bump him, Louis," said Chiggi.

"I wouldn't waste a bullet on him," said Rico; then glaring at Red he went on: "You been getting away with this rough stuff too long, Red. I'm Cesare Bandello!"

A decent book, most memorable because of the long-gone, seemingly authentic world that it depicts, and because it was the first of its kind.

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