In Praise of W. R. Burnett

Why isn’t W. R. Burnett being read today? Readers sing the praises of James Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson and David Goodis. If people are reading these guys, why aren’t they reading Burnett?

Sure, Burnett wasn’t eccentric like Goodis, disturbed like Thompson or grimly pessimistic like Cain. He hadn’t been a detective like Hammett and he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve like Chandler. He was just a guy from the Midwest who grew up knowing the score. He was born into a political family and moved to Chicago in his late 20s, where he hung out with prizefighters and hustlers. He got a job as a night clerk in a seedy hotel and wrote a whole slew of unpublished novels and short stories. These are the experiences that went into the writing of Little Caesar which became a bestseller and got him a screenwriting gig in Hollywood, where, unlike some of his fellow writers, he flourished.

Burnett wrote nearly 40 screenplays between 1930 and 1970. Some of them, like Beast of the City, Scarface and High Sierra, are classic gangster films. Some, like This Gun for Hire and The Racket with Robert Mitchum, are simply great crime movies. But he wrote political novels (The Giant Swing and King Cole come to mind), historical novels (I highly recommend The Goldseekers about the Alaskan gold rush) and westerns as well—novels like Saint Johnson about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and film scripts like San Antonio with Errol Flynn, and Sergeants Three with Frank Sinatra. Plus war movies like Action in the North Pacific, Background to Danger and The Great Escape.

And if he didn’t write the screenplay, well, most of his novels were filmed anyway. Probably the most famous besides Little Caesar are High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle, both directed by John Huston. W. R. Burnett was all over the place.

So why isn’t he being read all over the place today? I don’t know. He had a very even handed approach to characterization. There really weren’t any heroes and villains in his books, just people. He saw the humanity in the guy who enforced the collection of graft money for the big boss, just as much as he did the obsessive newspaperman who tried to track him down and expose him. Or the old con who tries to find love in the arms of a crippled girl. Or the boxing champion who is no match for a conniving wife. Or the classically-trained pianist who just wants to play after-hours jazz.

These aren’t corrupt or doomed human beings as such. They’re regular folks trying to do their jobs and live life as best they can, most of them tragically brought down by the weakness of compassion, the very spark that we all relate to. This is the hook for me, the dialogue and the characters. Once I start a Burnett book, I can’t put it down.

I’ve read a lot of them, and Stark House has reprinted four of those: It’s Always Four O’Clock, Iron Man, Little Men Big World and Vanity Row. I hope to reprint a lot more. And if there’s any justice, modern audiences will find these books and start reading Burnett again. In the meantime, if you’re curious about Burnett’s many novels, track down the January and February 2002 issues of FIRSTS: The Book Collector’s Magazine. Editor Robin H. Smiley writes about collecting Burnett and provides the most definitive look at his various works that I’ve ever read.

–Greg Shepard

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