Burnett, W. R. (William Riley Burnett) (pulp fiction writer)

(1899-1982) Also wrote as: John Monahan, James Updyke

W. R. Burnett is one of the godfathers of crime fiction. He virtually introduced the realistic professional criminal as protagonist to modern popular literature and was instrumental in establishing the parameters, and the cliches, of the gangster story in fiction and in film. Burnett’s first novel, Little Caesar (1929), set the stage for every urban mob tale to come. In High Sierra (1940) and The Asphalt Jungle (1949), which revolve around elaborate heists, he created a great subset of crime fiction known as “the caper.” In addition to these works specifically concerned with the criminal class, Burnett explored various unsavory worlds of American life, including gambling, sports, hoboing, and politics. His storytelling talent extended even farther, to the writing of such great westerns as Saint Johnson (1930) and The Dark Command (1938), and lively historical fiction, including his novel of 19th-century Irish rebels, Captain Light-foot (1954).

A native of Springfield, Ohio, Burnett was a college athlete and then worked for several years in a dull job as a statistician for the state of Ohio. A belated, obsessive desire to write led Burnett to turn out a half-dozen novels in his spare time, none relating to his future subject matter, all of them rejected by developers. Looking for an escape from his drab life, he moved with his new bride to Chicago in 1927. The city, then in the throes of the Prohibition era and the consequent growth spurt of organized crime, was ruthless and almost lawless. “Why, you could be run over by a bus in Chicago and nobody would even look at you,” he recalled. “It was a great thing for a writer, because it hit me with such impact.” Working as a night clerk in a seedy hotel, picking up the street gossip (he claimed to have looked in on the results of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the notorious slaughter of some of Al Capone’s gangland rivals), consuming the daily news reports of a city run by mobs, and becoming friendly with a talkative insider—a lieutenant in the Chicago gang run by Bugs Moran—Burnett collected enough incidents, biographies, and “viewpoint”—the gangsters’ thinking patterns and amorality—to make his next attempt at a novel very publishable indeed. Little Caesar, brought out by Dial Press in 1929, told of the rise and fall of Cesare Bandello, known as Rico, an Italian immigrant who becomes a mob boss. Burnett told the story mostly through tough, slangy dialogue, with sparse paragraphs of description taking the characters along from gang confab to speakeasy party to shootout. The authorial perspective was largely objective, unblinking, but with a dollop of deadpan, contemptuous humor reserved for his ambitious crook, a primitive narcissist who “loved but three things: himself, his hair and his gun,” and who reads the newspaper reports of his latest outrages with the mixed feelings of a playwright getting the opening night reviews:

“. . . the thug who shot Police Captain Courtney, was . . . probably an Italian . . . Courtney’s murderer was described by one eyewitness as a small, unhealthy-looking foreigner.”

Rico tore up the clipping.

“Where do they get that unhealthy stuff!” he said. “I never been sick a day in my life.”

In the same year that Burnett’s first topic appeared and caused a sensation (which only increased with the release of the 1930 film version starring Edward G. Robinson as Rico), he also published Iron Man, a hard-boiled novel about a prizefighter, and Saint Johnson, his take on Wyatt Earp and the bloody events at Tombstone, Arizona, based in part on recollections he gathered from people who had been present at the time of the O.K. Corral gunfight.

From the time of Little Caesar’s release, Burnett was in demand by the Hollywood studios and had constant screenwriting assignments—which included scripts and script contributions for Scar-face (1932), Beast of the City (1932), This Gun for Hire (1942), Wake Island (1942), The Racket (1951), I Died a Thousand Times (1956), Sergeants Three (1962), and The Great Escape (1963). The screenwriting grind no doubt played a part in the mixed quality of Burnett’s fiction during those years, but great topics continued to appear: Dark

Hazard (1933), a tough but poignant novel of a lowlife gambler and his relationship with a lovable canine, a reject from the dog track; High Sierra (1940), the story of a last score by a John Dillinger-like bank robber, a fading legend named Roy Earle; The Asphalt Jungle (1950), a big-city thriller full of sharply etched portraits of working criminals, and the source for the masterful film version released the same year and directed by John Huston; and Vanity Row (1952), a caustic delineation of big city corruption and of the thin line between the criminals and the establishment.


  • Adobe Walls (1953);
  • Asphalt Jungle, The (1949);
  • Bitter Ground (1958);
  • Captain Lightfoot (1954);
  • Conant (1961);
  • Cool Man, The (1968);
  • Dark Command: A Kansas Iliad, The (1938);
  • Dark Hazard (1933);
  • Giant Swing, The (1932);
  • Goldseekers, The (1962);
  • Goodbye, Chicago (1981);
  • Goodbye to the Past (1934);
  • Goodhues of Sinking Creek, The (1934);
  • High Sierra (1940);
  • Iron Man (1930);
  • King Cole (1936);
  • Little Caesar (1929);
  • Little Men, Big World (1951);
  • Mi Amigo (1959);
  • Nobody Lives Forever (1943);
  • Pale Moon (1956);
  • Quick Brown Fox, The (1942);
  • Romelle (1946);
  • Saint Johnson (1930);
  • Silver Eagle, The (1931);
  • Stretch Dawson (1950);
  • Tomorrow’s Another Day (1945);
  • Underdog (1957);
  • Vanity Row (1952);
  • Widow Barony, The (1962);
  • Winning of Mickey Free (1965)

As John Monahan:

  • Big Stan (1953)

As James Updyke:

  • It’s Always Four O’Clock (1956)

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