Bio: William Riley Burnett (1899-1981) was a master of journeyman fiction whose work is so efficient and skillful that it has left him all but anonymous in a world that deifies his contemporaries James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Burnett wrote some 36 novels and either wrote or collaborated on 60 screenplays, not to mention dozens of magazines stories (I the days when magazines published fiction regularly), short stories, plays and even songs. Just a handful of his novels represents a rich vein of contemporary popular American culture--Little Caesar, High Sierra, The Asphalt Jungle, The Dark Command and Nobody Lives Forever.
Burnett was born in Springfield Ohio, to a family active in local and state politics. After he began writing, he moved to Chicago in the late 1920s, at the height of Al Capone's dominance of the city. The atmosphere there--Burnett was one of the first on the scene after the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, though he refused to look at the carnage--inspired his first great success Little Caesar, unforgettably filmed in 1930 with Edward G. Robinson in the title role. But Burnett was not merely interested in sensationalism--the novel is preceded by a quote from Machiavelli's The Prince. The novel is said to have had a profound influence on such writers as William Faulkner, Horace McCoy and Graham Greene.
Burnett had a strong relationship with Hollywood thereafter--as novelist and screenwriter--and eventually he found a particular champion in writer/director John Huston, who would call Burnett "one of the most neglected American writers." Burnett collaborated with Huston on the adaptation of High Sierra in 1941, a classic film (directed by Raoul Walsh) in which Humphrey Bogart redefined himself in the role of Roy Earle. Their paths crossed again when Huston filmed The Asphalt Jungle in 1950. Though Huston lamented the general neglect of Burnett and his work, the Mystery Writers of America remembered. They awarded Burnett their highest honor, the prestigious title of Grand Master, at the 1980 Edgar Awards.
Burnett used the experience of his life in everything he wrote. This, he believed, was the only way for a writer. "I have a very good grip on reality, which I inherited from my father, so I pretty much know the limitations of humanity and the possibilities in life, which aren't very great for anybody," he once said. "You're born, you're gonna have trouble, and you're gonna die. That you know. There's not much else you know."
The perfect crime goes awry in W.R. Burnett's tough and brutally wise 1949 novel The Asphalt Jungle, and the problem is, in the end, human nature. Told in 40 short, blunt but richly atmospheric chapters, the novel meticulously details the planning and execution of a major jewel heist. The robbery is devised by Doc Reimenschneider, a master criminal just out of prison. It requires the involvement of a variety of different people, from the muscle--an itinerant hood named Dix, an overgrown country ... more info>>
The tormented and exhausted man at the center of W.R. Burnett's High Sierra is a notorious criminal whom the newspapers call "Mad Dog" Roy Earle. Earle is every bit the criminal the newspapers depict, but he is a complicated soul who is the tragic hero of the novel--a horribly flawed man, a violent criminal who still retains a bit of a conscience but never gets a decent break. As in most of Burnett's novels, High Sierra ostensibly describes a carefully plotted crime that is undermined by human n... more info>>
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 perfo... more info>>