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Little Caesar

Little Caesar by W. R. Burnett
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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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Title: Little Caesar
Author: W. R. Burnett
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