Friday, August 15, 2014

Review of Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett (1929, Dial Press)

Cesare ‘Rico’ Bandello is an up-and-coming mobster working for Sam Vettori in the Little Italy area of North Chicago.  Given his guile and ruthlessness it’s only a matter of time before he ousts his canny but slothful boss.  While standing up a nightclub on New Year’s Eve Rico shoots an off-duty police captain dead.  The gang go to ground and Rico knows that if everyone keeps their nerve then they can continue to expand their empire.  But with the police applying pressure, it’s only a matter of time until things are bought to a head.

Little Caesar is considered to be the first American gangster novel, highly innovative for the time for its social realism in depicting how a gang was run and organised, their crimes and on-going struggles with the law.  He subsequently converted the book into a screenplay and it was made into a movie (1931), also considered the first classic Gangster film.  In total he wrote over 40 novels and the screenplays for over 50 movies.  The plot for Little Caesar is very linear, telling the story of the rise and fall of a hardnosed, ambitious gangster, who quickly moves up the ranks due to his daring and ruthlessness.  The prose and storytelling is tight and expressive, the pace kept high, and the reader is quickly hooked in through the action sequences punctuated by Rico’s manoeuvrings.  The story lacks the depth and sophistication of later gangster tales, but is nonetheless an interesting and engaging read.

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