Little Caesar by WR Burnett (1929)

Rico was a simple man. He loved but three things: himself, his hair and his gun. He took excellent care of all three. (p.22)

Apparently one of the pioneering gangster novels, which was then turned into the ‘first’ gangster movie.

William Riley Burnet was a civil servant in Ohio where he wrote over 100 short stories and five novels, all unpublished, before moving to Chicago at the age of 28, getting a job in a seedy hotel where he came into close contact with hoodlums, nightclub performers, boxers, all the colourful underworld, and drew from it to write this, his breakthrough novel.

Little Caesar propelled him to fame and to a successful career as a novelist and screenwriter: he wrote some 38 novels, the best known of which are probably High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle, and worked on some 50 movie scripts, from the noir adaptation of Graham Greene’s This Gun For Hire in 1942 through to adventure classics of my generation like The Great Escape and Ice Station Zebra (1968).

Little Caesar

The plot is simple. Chicago, New Year’s Eve, a small gang of hoodlums led by sleek fat Sam Vettori, who has picked up the short violent Rico to be lieutenant, plan the armed robbery of a night club, the Casa Alvarado. Vettori found Rico, ‘an unknown Yougstown wop’, brought him to the big city and into his gang but, as a result of the robbery, Rico triumphs in the battle of wills and makes himself leader of the gang. He has a devoted follower in Otero, the Greek, and his ally, the Valentino-handsome ‘Gentleman’ Joe Massara, who acts as the inside man on their jobs. All of them are doubtful about cowardly Tony Passa the driver who, after crashing the getaway car, holes up with his mother and threatens to talk to understanding Father McConagha. Which is why Rico gets Bat Corelli to drive down and shoots him dead on the steps of the cathedral…

Supporting cast

The dynamics of these core characters, the basic plot (the rise and fall of a gangster) are fairly interesting but what’s more striking is the portrayal of the wider network of people they’re involved in: a net, a web, presumably based on the characters Burnett observed in his Chicago hotel. It’s their range, the fullness of this vision of gangster society, which gives the book its persuasiveness.

  • Bat Carillo, once a light heavyweight then leader of one of Vettori’s gangs of hooligans
  • Blackie Avezzano who manages Sam’s garage and is a sneak
  • The Big Boy, overall gang leader, higher than Vettori (James Michael O’Doul)
  • Blondy Belle ‘the swellest woman in Little Italy’, ‘big, healthy and lascivious’
  • Bugs Liska, Steve Gollancz’s lieutenant
  • Captain Courtney, the police captain Rico is foolish enough to shoot dead
  • Carillo who works at their nightclub and drives the ‘can’ from which Rico shoots down Tony on the steps of the cathedral
  • Chesty, doorman of Sam Vettori’s club
  • DeVoss, manager of the Bronze Peacock, the nightclub where ‘Gentleman’ Joe works as a dancer who dances with older rich women for money
  • Tony’s mother who disapproves of his hoodlum friends
  • Father McConagha who offers Tony sanctuary
  • Little Arnie (Arnold Worch) ‘ran the biggest gambling joint on the North Side’
  • Jew Mike, has his joint trashed by Rico’s men, tougher replica of his boss, Little Arnie
  • Jim Flaherty, amiable plain clothes policeman
  • ‘Gentleman’ Joe Massara, good-looking dancer, dragged into crime, ends up serving life
  • Joe Pavlovsky, drove the car which tried to hit Rico
  • Joe Peeper, ‘Arnie’s boy’, a stool pigeon or spy for Rico in Arnie’s gang
  • Joe Sansone, ‘a stickler for clothes’
  • Kid Bean ‘a Sicilian dark as a negro’
  • Kid Burg clears out after Little Arnie’s fall
  • Killer Pepi and his woman Blue Jay; Killer and Kid Bean rob 25 filling stations in 2 weeks
  • Kips Berger, sold his failing gambling den to Little Arnie
  • Limpy John, ‘they bumped him off’
  • Ma Magdalena the fence and her son Arrigo who keep a fruit store
  • Monk De Angelo, former gang leader
  • Olga Stassoff, a beautiful dancer, Joe’s girlfriend
  • Ottavio Vettori, 21 and already famous as a gunman
  • Pete Montana, gangster controls vast swathe of the North Side (Pietro Fontano)
  • Pippy Coke, one of the Detroit assassins who tried to shoot Rico
  • Rico (Cesare Bandello)
  • Ritz Colonna, Pete Montana’s lieutenant
  • Sam Vettori, fat gangster boss who takes in Rico and is overthrown by him (and eventually hanged)
  • Seal Skin, Otero’s old lady
  • Scabby
  • The Sheeny, unlicensed doctor
  • Spike Rieger, policeman, assistant to Flaherty
  • Squint Maschke, one of Little Arnie’s three lieutenants, scrams
  • Mr Jack Willoughby the millionaire, might back Joe in a show

Elements of the text

This is a short book (158 pages), largely because there’s relatively little description, and almost no psychology or characterisation. There are maybe six places in the text where Burnett stops to describe or analyse a character in more detail or to situate the action. For the most part this sort of thing is omitted, and certainly doesn’t appear until well into the text. For the first 30 pages or so it is nothing but action and dialogue, throwing you right into the mix.

Rico lived at a tension. His nervous system was geared up to such a pitch that he was never sleepy, never felt the desire to relax, was always keenly alive. He did not average over five hours sleep a night and as soon as he opened  his eyes he was awake. When he sat in a chair he never thrust out his feet and lolled, but sat rigi and alert. He walked, ate, took his pleasures in the same manner. What distinguished him from his associates was his inability to live in the present. He was like a man on a long train journey to a promised land. To him the present was but a dingy way-station; he had his eyes on the end of the journey. This is the mental attitude of a man destined for success. But the resultant tension had its drawbacks. He was subject to periodid slumps. His energy would suddenly disappear; he would lose interest in everything and for several days would sleep twelve to fifteen hours at a stretch. This was a dangerous weakness, and Rico was aware of it and feared it. (p.71)

As you can see, nothing special about the prose. Functional. Which might be why either Burnett or his editor decided to keep this kind of thing to a minimum. Instead, for the most part the story is told through dialogue, as in a movie. And the dialogue is crammed with gangster slang. On one page there’s more thieves’ patois than in a whole Dashiell Hammett novel. Hammett’s books are, on the whole, about people outside the criminal milieu, who enter it, who explore it, but who aren’t part of it, ditto Chandler. By contrast, this novel is deeply immersed in the mind-set, the psychology, the dialogue and the vocabulary of 1920s Chicago gangsters.

1920s gangster slang

  • beat it = depart
  • beefing = complaining, beef = complaint 87
  • berries = dollars 107
  • bird = man 116 – not, as in English slang, a young woman
  • bracelets = handcuffs 117
  • do it up brown = do it properly
  • to get brushed = hit by bullets, shot
  • bull = policeman
  • bump off = kill
  • bunk = rubbish, short for bunkum 101
  • burg = the city in this case Chicago108
  • can = car
  • can it = shut up
  • chin = to chat 140
  • a cinch = an easy or obvious thing 137
  • crack/wisecrack = joke, often insulting 144
  • cush = money
  • cut = percentage of the take on a job
  • dick = policeman
  • dope = information, story, situation
  • double-cross = betray
  • dump = home 106
  • gat = gun 133
  • graft = illegal business
  • (give the) go-by = get rid of, kick out 144
  • the goods = the right stuff, the real McCoy 104
  • gyp = deceive or cheat 87
  • harness = smart clothes 108
  • hit the hay = go to bed 87
  • hit the pipe = smoke drugs (opium? marijuana?) 112
  • hook = to steal 135
  • hop = drugs, morphine
  • jack = the money, specially the loot 12
  • Jane = woman
  • joint = gambling or rinking establishment 104
  • lead = bullets as in ‘ a hunk of lead’ 100
  • lit up = smartly dressed 108
  • monkey suit = evening dress 108
  • mosey = go away, flee 109
  • mug = face as in ‘mug-shot’ = portrait photograph
  • nut = head, as in ‘you’re off your nut’ 96
  • pinch = arrest 117
  • piker = vagrant, loser 110
  • give somewhere or someone the once-over = visit in order to examine, check out 104
  • pop, as in ‘pop him’ – kill someone 128
  • go press the bricks = take a walk 89
  • plugging = shooting
  • roll = wad of cash 135
  • the grand rush = big confrontation, shootout 92
  • spring = release someone from prison 122
  • on the square = straight, honest 109
  • stogie = cheap cigar 125
  • the racket = life of crime
  • red = (red) cent, as in ‘didn’t have a red’ 110
  • rig you up = give you clothes to wear 106
  • the ropes = how things are done
  • rod = gun 95
  • a rush = shootout, violent event 108
  • sap = idiot 97
  • to say a mouthful = tell the truth, put it in a nutshell 104
  • put the skids under = betray 97
  • skirt = woman
  • spill the beans, spill the works = tell secrets, talk about what should be kept secret 126
  • spill it = talk
  • split = arrangement, agreement
  • squawk = spill the beans, confess, to the police 126
  • stand = hold-up
  • stir = prison 106
  • the wrong steer = to be misinformed 103
  • stringing = lying to, ‘someone been stringing you’ 96
  • swells = rich people
  • talk turkey = serious conversation 102
  • that’s the talk = you said a good thing
  • tickler = moustache 139
  • on the up and up = on the right side of, OK 103
  • wised up = in the know, aware of the news 127
  • yaps = crooks, killers 95
  • yegg = small-time crook 109

Dapper

Burnett notes people’s clothes very thoroughly. Rico himself is very proud of his appearance and careful what he wears.

Rico was wearing a big ulster like Joe’s and a derby also like Joe’s. He had on fawn-coloured spats drawn over pointed patent-leather shoes; and a diamond horseshoe pin sparkled in a red, green and white striped necktie. (1974 Kaye & Ward hardback edition, p.60)

Rico unbuttoned his ulster to display his finery. He had on one of his striped suits. It was dead black with a narrow pink stripe. The colour scheme was further complicated by a pale blue shirt and an orange and white striped tie adorned with the ruby pin. (p.79)

Jazz

There’s a jazz band playing almost permanently in the bar under the room where the gang make their plans. It counterpoints their dialogue and double-crossing. It’s amazing the speed with which jazz – generally credited as coming into existence around 1917 – spread completely throughout urban America to become the soundtrack to the 1920s. Even tone-deaf Rico likes it.

Rico had no ear for music; he couldn’t even whistle, or distinguish one tune from another. But he liked rhythm. There was somthing straightforward and primitive about jazz rhythms that impressed him. (p.72)

Movie

The book was an overnight sensation, a million-seller. It was snapped up by Warner Brothers film studio and made into a film starring Douglas Fairbanks Junior as handsome Joe Massara, and giving Edward G Robinson his breakthrough role as the vicious little gangster. ‘The picturization of one of America’s greatest novels.’

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