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Little Caesar [Secure eReader]
eBook by W. R. Burnett

eBook Category: Mainstream
eBook Description: 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.

eBook Publisher: RosettaBooks, Published: 2002
Fictionwise Release Date: September 2002

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It was 1928. Winter. A cold and gloomy Chicago afternoon, with sparse snow falling from a slate-colored sky. I had less than five dollars to my name, a worn overcoat, a hand-me-down suit that had seen better days, and I was headed for the cheapest restaurant on the North Side, but ... I'd never been so happy before in my life. The galley proofs of Little Caesar, which had arrived from New York that day, were in my overcoat pocket.

I remember vividly the look of the snow-covered street and of the little restaurant with the steaming coffee urns and the tired-faced counterman. As I ate, with snow falling past the befogged windows and a couple of taxi drivers talking politics in a corner, I got out the galleys and ostentatiously began to go through them. To my disappointment nobody asked me what they were.

It's strange that I'd remember such an insignificant moment and forget so many more important things, but that is the truth of the matter.

It had been a long struggle. I'd written for over six years without selling a line, working meanwhile as a statistician for the State of Ohio, in Columbus. Fed up with office routine -- and I still hate the sight of an office! -- I had quit my job and moved on to Chicago, where my father was managing repossessed hotels for the Chicago Title and Trust.

On me, an outsider, an alien from Ohio, the impact of Chicago was terrific. It seemed overwhelmingly big, teeming, dirty, brawling, frantically alive. The pace was so much faster than anything I'd been used to; rudeness was the rule; people seemed to have no time to be friendly, no time to desist for one moment from whatever it was they were pursuing. Broke, jobless, a nobody, I fought hard to keep my balance in one of the most blankly indifferent, one of the toughest cities in the world.

Capone was King. Corruption was rampant. Big Bill Thompson, the mayor, was threatening to punch King George of England in the "snoot." Gangsters were shooting each other all over town; in fact, I "heard" one killing over the radio. It happened in a café while a dance-band broadcast was in progress. Two shots came over distinctly, the music slurred to an abrupt stop, then the air went dead. I can't remember the name of the gangster who was killed to the blaring of a jazz band, but it's a matter of record.

I spent my first night in Chicago in a cheap little hotel -- of the flea-bag variety -- on the North Side. Just as I was falling asleep there was a terrific explosion directly across the street. Windows rattled; curtains blew wildly, and my bed gave a leap that nearly threw me to the floor. Almost at once there were two more explosions, blocks away this time, but close enough. I got up, dressed, and went down to the lobby, where a sleepy-eyed night clerk explained that there was a price war going on among garage owners, things had got rough, and apparently the "boys" had decided to toss a few "pineapples." The clerk did not appear to be disturbed or even very interested. The whole thing seemed natural enough to him.

Early the next morning I went across the street to where a couple of dull-eyed loafers were staring apathetically at a huge ragged hole the "pineapple" had made in the solid brick wall of the garage. I talked to one of the mechanics, who shrugged and said: "Aw, you know. Just one of them things."

When I, an outsider, brought all of this up in conversation, the average citizen of Chicago would, laugh at me and explain that it was just a lot of nonsense in the newspapers and that as for himself, although he'd lived in the city all of his life, he'd never so much as seen a gangster. This struck me as a peculiar and rather interesting form of ostrichism.

Vincent Starrett, not at all an average citizen, knew better. He said that Chicago was as archaic, as dangerous as a city of the Middle Ages.

I walked about everywhere, went every place. I tried hard to take it all in. By luck, I met a police reporter who talked to me off the record. I was appalled, then interested. A book began to take shape vaguely in my mind, a book dealing with the darker side of this archaic, dangerous city.

I began to make notes. I wrote a few paragraphs, then pages. Finally I typed out the author's hopeful legend, Chapter One, and started to work in earnest. A week or so later I threw away everything I'd written, and began to read books on crime, for a lead. By chance, I discovered a volume put out by the Chicago University Press, dealing with gangsterism in Chicago. In this coldly factual survey, I came across an account of the rise and fall of the Sam Cardinelli gang. This account served as the nucleus for the novel that was originally called The Furies, and later, by a tremendous stroke of luck, Little Caesar.

I started again, but stopped, dissatisfied. I still didn't have the right handle, or, as they say in Hollywood, the wienie, the gimmick. Suddenly one night it came to me. The novel should be a picture of the world as seen through the eyes of a gangster. All conventional feelings, desires, and hopes should be rigidly excluded. Further, the book should be written in a style that suited the subject matter -- that is, in the illiterate jargon of the Chicago gangster. I threw overboard what had been known up to then as "literature." I declared war on adjectives. I jettisoned "description." I tried to tell the story entirely through narration and dialogue, letting the action speak for itself. I also jettisoned "psychology" -- and I tried hard to supress myself and all of my opinions.

Even so, I do not think Little Caesar would have come off, if I hadn't met a young man on the North Side, who seemed, on first acquaintance, merely to own and manage a barbershop. We went to the fights together, we bowled, we had lunch or dinner quite often. This plausible young fellow, an Italian-American in his late twenties, was the pay-off man for the biggest mob on the North Side. He was close-mouthed with me for a long time, until it dawned on him that though a writer I was not a newspaper man, but just a sort of oddball, who, for some Godforsaken reason, went around making up stories and writing them down, fairy tales to him.

"Why?" he wanted to know. "What's the percentage? Why don't you get a job on the Trib?"

He was a very practical young man and in many respects reminded me of the bond salesmen and businessmen I'd known in Columbus before my escape to Chicago. They, too, were practical. They, too, could not see any sense at all in writing fiction, something that had never even "happened." Why not get a job on the Columbus Dispatch if you wanted to be a writer? They, like the young Chicago hoodlum -- let's call him John -- were "all business."

John, however, had none of their second thoughts and none of their hypocrisy, and he carried practicality to an extreme that would have appalled them. For instance, in talking about a business rival, he once said: "You give him a chance, see? A good chance. You reason with him. You say, 'look, fellow; there's room for all of us, so don't be so greedy.' If he won't listen, if he stays greedy, lousing you up ... then ... pow! He asked for it." In other words the rival was definitely not a "practical" man and simply got what was coming to him.

I must say that when I first started to talk with John my understanding was clouded by many old-fashioned notions. I was under the impression that murder -- or, as John would have said, a rubout -- was morally wrong and that the murderer was bound to suffer pangs of conscience and remorse. I even said something like this. John stared at me in consternation, then almost choked laughing. Was I kidding? Do soldiers in a war suffer stuff like that? What was the difference if a guy rubbed out Germans or "impractical" business rivals? I must be nuts.

In short, I gradually and painfully acquired from John an entirely new and fresh way of looking at the world. It was not a pretty way; it was more than a little frightening; but it was certainly "practical" and was later taken over lock, stock, and barrel by all the tyrants -- all the little Caesars -- of Europe. Better yet, although only realizing it little by little, I was getting exactly what I needed to make a real book of the manuscript I was laboring over: a picture of the world as seen through the eyes of a gangster.

Later, John bragged that he had bought the first copy of Little Caesar sold on the North Side. He thought the book was pretty good, but there was one thing that puzzled him very much. I was a college guy, wasn't I? Then how come I wrote such lousy grammar!

When I finished Little Caesar I gave it to my father to read. He liked it and said: "I really think you've hit it this time. Bill." I felt very much encouraged by this, especially as my father had a strong "practical" side himself. For several years he'd been trying to get me to give up "wasting my time" and learn the hotel business.

An earlier novel of mine had been turned down by Scribner's, but the rejection had been considerably softened by a few kind words of encouragement from a Scribner's editor, Maxwell Perkins. I, being a Midwestern country boy, did not know Maxwell Perkins from Maxwell Anderson; had no idea of his standing in New York; but I remembered him as the only editor in the country -- I'd tried them all with one manuscript or another -- who had ever taken the trouble to send me a personal note instead of the routine rejection slip.

I was so anxious to get the ms. of Little Caesar off to him that, in spite of my financial condition, I sent it airmail, special. It was back in less than three weeks. Mr. Pekins did not like it. Meanwhile I'd consulted the only literary man I knew at the time -- Vincent Starrett -- and had discovered that Perkins was considered to be New York's leading publishers' editor. I'm afraid I bragged about this to my father and he did not let me forget it when the manuscript came back with such speed.

We had a serious talk. He said: "Are you stupid, thick, or what? You've wasted six years of your life bending over a typewriter. You are twenty-seven years old, no longer young. Get wise Learn the hotel business."

How could I argue with him? I threw Little Caesar in the trunk and took a job as night clerk in a big North Side hotel. I found it harder to stand than the Columbus statistical office. One night I said to myself: "Rather than spend my life working in a hotel -- or a business office -- I'll walk into Lake Michigan till my hat floats."

But it turned out that this was not necessary. After a few weeks of hotel work, I got Little Caesar out of the trunk, reread it, liked it better than before, sent it off to The Dial Press -- and ... well ... the rest may not be history, but it was certainly the turning point of my life.

Little Caesar was that rare thing, an all-around smash. It made me. It made Eddie Robinson. And it did very well for the Literary Guild and Warner Brothers. It was published in June, 1929, nearly thirty years ago, and it is still a live book, with a new edition just off the press in England, not to mention the new American edition, a copy of which you are now holding in your hand. It has been translated into twelve languages, including English, as a witty friend of mine says.

I am sure that the title had a lot to do with the novel's success. It would be hard to find one more apt, and yet I hit on it, in a sense, by accident. As I stated above, the original title was The Furies -- far too literary and not in keeping with the tone of the book, a slang novel, even a proletarian novel, if you like, on the order of Bubu de Montparnasse. Well ... when I was half through the book I started to have qualms. Rico, the leading figure, began to take on nightmare proportions in my imagination and I couldn't help wondering if I was on the right track after all -- I was afraid I was giving birth to a monster. But then a consoling thought came to me -- out of the blue or the subconscious, as you prefer -- my leading figure, Rico Bandello, killer and gang leader, was no monster at all, but merely a little Napoleon, a little Caesar.

-- W. R. Burnett

West Los Angeles, California October, 1957

Copyright © 1956 by W.R. Burnett

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