Up next in October:
THE CHEATERS / DIAL "M" FOR MAN by Orrie Hitt
Hitt was and is known as a prolific sleaze author but it would be a mistake to think of him as only that. He was also a writer of some first rate crime thrillers, especially the James M. Cain-esque The Cheaters. Paired with Dial "M" for Man, a novel featuring, no, you didn't guess it, a television repairman, you get an especially entertaining sampling of what this prolific writer could do. If you've never read Hitt's crime stories before, you're in for a treat.
Some praise for our now shipping Day Keene trio:
James Reasoner on Too Hot to Hold:
As always, Day Keene's work is consistently entertaining. [....] I think he was the best pure plotter in the Gold Medal stable. Nobody was ever better at taking the familiar elements of the and mixing them together to make something that at least seems fresh and new, whether it really is or not. He was a master of pacing as well, and TOO HOT TO HOLD is a prime example of that as he constantly keeps the story moving from character to character and incident to incident. If real life had allowed me to, I'm sure I would have read this book in one sitting.
Luckily, TOO HOT TO HOLD is included in the latest Day Keene collection from Stark House...
Featured back list title:IT'S ALWAYS FOUR O'CLOCK / IRON MAN by W.R. Burnett
"Burnett is an unchallenged master of the crime novel, an idiomatic eyewitness from Chicago’s gangster era. If he has avoided the mystery (and it is not at all clear that he has, for what is a mystery without crime) it may well be the only form he has missed. He has written about cops, robbers, boxers, jockeys, bettors, cowboys, Indians and Caribbean Revolutionaries, creating dozens of memorable characters during the course of thirty-five books and over sixty motion pictures."
--David Laurence Wilson
For a limited time, the Featured back list title is available for 15% off the cover price. Just send us an e-mail with your ordering information and mention this newsletter. Enjoy!
William Riley Burnett, better known to the literary world as W.R. Burnett, received the MWA Grand Master Award in 1980, two years before his death and one year before his last novel, Goodbye, Chicago, was released. For the author of such classics as The Asphalt Jungle, High Sierra, and his first, perhaps best known book, Little Caesar, it was a much deserved honor. Burnett's ability to immerse his readers in worlds often glimpsed but not felt, seen but not experienced, created an often intense relationship with the reader that is just as powerful today.
In 1981, our own David Laurence Wilson interviewed Burnett upon the publication of Goodbye, Chicago. He's agreed to let us publish much of that interview here, which jumps in with Burnett talking about an earlier book (apparently as yet unpublished):
W.R. BURNETT: This last book of mine, The City People, was such a strong effort for me, considering my age, that I got silly, and nervous about it. When I had it copied and sent to New York I was so happy!
It’s a series of short stories, thirty of them, picturing an entire city. It’s every layer of society, from a bum to a multimillionaire.
DAVID L. WILSON: But is there an overall story, some crime or catastrophe affecting the entire city?
WRB: No, the crime in the book appears only in the way that it would appear in an overall picture of the city. There’s no crime accentuated. There’s a robbery, an attempted robbery, of a White Front Restaurant, an all-night diner. There’s a story called “Stakeout,” in which a cheap crook is caught, and a story called “Home for Christmas Eve,” about a real criminal. The rest of the stories deal about everything from business to Vietnamese refugees.
DLW: What about the book with St. Martin’s, Goodbye, Chicago?
WRB: Well, the whole title is Goodbye, Chicago, 1928 — The End of an Era. “End of an Era” doesn’t mean national, it just means the city. It’s when Capone started to slip and the IRS went after him — and got him. The police — who were so corrupt — began to reform. This book deals with that period. I lived through it, and I wrote about it because I thought it would be of historic interest. The leading character is an Italian-American police officer, another is a Polish guy who runs a house of prostitution. Then there’s a lawyer — Capone’s lawyer. Due to an event — which I won’t go into — they all get mixed together.
DLW: In most of your crime books you don’t take the point of view of the inspector, or the cop on the beat. It’s the criminal’s point of view. They seem to function very well. They seem to run the city efficiently.
WRB: Well, that’s organized crime, not petty crime. I deal with crime but I don’t deal with the freaky, crazy crime, like we have today. I was only interested in crime as a social phenomenon, as a left-handed form of normal endeavor. They’re just businessmen who don’t abide by the rules.
DLW: But they don’t win.
WRB: No, they can’t really win. Criminals can’t win if authority is any good at all. The only way they can win is Number One — if authority is weak; Number Two — if it’s corrupt. If it’s neither they haven’t got a chance. But that’s the problem.
DLW: Your most exceptional characters are criminals, not the forces of authority.
WRB: Yeah, sure. They are. A lot of them were very smart. And actually it’s a shame that they went that way, in real life.
DLW: Did you sympathize with them? Did you consider any of them peers?
WRB: Absolutely not. I didn’t sympathize with them any more than I sympathize with a crooked businessman. People are just people to me. I don’t look at them in categories. But I don’t particularly sympathize with criminals.
DLW: But if anyone gets shot, well, they appear to deserve it.
WRB: That’s the way Rico saw it, all right. But that’s what made Little Caesar such a shocking book to people, because they didn’t see it that way. One of the leading journalists of the day wrote a review for the New York Tribune which really surprised me. He was horrified with the book. He said such people — meaning the gangsters — should be civilized with a Krag. Are you familiar with the Krag? It’s a rifle. I don’t know why he said that, it was the rifle used during the Boer War. You’d think he’d come up with something a little more modern, the M-16 or something.
DLW: Perhaps he was fond of the Boer War.
WRB: Perhaps, but of course, this was back in ‘29. He was outraged by my effrontery in creating such characters, and in humanizing them. But that’s what I’ve always done best. I humanize people that other writers don’t even write about. Or if they do write about them they’re just names, not people.
DLW: What about your style in Little Caesar? Was it part of a tradition or...?
WRB: It was a style I created on my own. It’s hard, today, to realize the effect of that book. What I had done was to throw out everything that they had put in novels before. Then I wrote it with practically no description at all — I showed everything through action and dialogue. I used the language — approximately, stylized — of the people I was writing about. Not literary English at all. Just American English, the kind that people talk.
DLW: Had you written anything else in that style?
WRB: Oh yes, I had experimented. Little Caesar was my sixth novel. They were turned down so I threw them away. They were approaching Little Caesar but I was still following around with old literary language. Little Caesar was finished in two drafts, so I had it pretty well in mind.
DLW: What about those five other novels?
WRB: I just threw them away. One was a semi-biography, a biographical approach to a story about a young man born in extreme poverty on the river in Ohio, who brings himself up by his own bootstraps. Sort of a Gatsby, though I didn’t know it at the time. They were rejected by every publisher in New York.
DLW: After Little Caesar you left Chicago.
WRB: Yes. Money was falling out of my ears and my first wife and I came to California as tourists. I had absolutely no desire to write for pictures but people kept calling me from the studios. I thought they were crazy and I told them so. Then I got a call from Graham Baker, the story editor at Warner Brothers. He told me they were making a picture that might interest me and I told him I wasn’t interested. Then he and John Monk Saunders, who wrote WINGS, was writing “The Finger Points,” a story about Chicago gangsters. Could I just come in and talk, to sit in as an adviser? He asked me how much I’d want to do that. I didn’t care if I got the job or not so I thought of the highest thing I could imagine, a thousand a week. Baker said, “Go to work Monday!” I called my father in Chicago, told him what I was getting and he said, “You’re a liar! Nobody gets a thousand a week!” So I sent him a copy of the first check. Later Baker told me I’d been a sucker. He would have paid me twenty-five hundred.
DLW: So you talked.
WRB: For a thousand a week, we talked about everything. One week passed, then a second. Saunders spoke about Hemingway — he knew him. After three weeks we got a call from the front office. They wanted us to come in that afternoon, to tell them what we’d done. I thought the gig was up but Saunders told me not to worry. He told me to sit and nod my head, to agree with him no matter what he said. I was scared, but then, when we got there, he ad libbed the entire story. They sat there and said, “Wow! You guys are doing fine!” But as far as I was concerned, we hadn’t done a goddamn thing.
DLW: So did he write the story after the conference?
WRB: Well, no, I did the writing. I had to do it. That’s the climax of the story. It wasn’t the same story he had told them but it had some of the same elements. But after all, it was my first screenplay, and writing it, it wasn’t too good.
DLW: After that you did SCARFACE, for Howard Hughes?
WRB: Yes. United Artists called me so I went in to talk to Hughes and even then, when he was a kid, he was deaf in one ear, so to speak with him, you had to stand at his side. He was in all kinds of trouble so he said, “Will you see what you can do? Whatever you can do, I’d appreciate it.” So now I was getting twenty-five hundred a week.
DLW: Were you the first writer on the picture?
WRB: Oh no! I went up to my office and that afternoon they started bringing in the scripts. They had about fifteen of them. Well, of course, I was new and to be frank, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I began to read the scripts and oh, they were terrible. I sort of put together a bunch of scenes which I thought were pertinent and rewrote it.
DLW: What about those fifteen scripts? Were they all the same story?
WRB: Oh no, they were all screwed up. It was made from a pulp book, you know, and it was awful — junk, but Hughes had paid twenty-five thousand dollars for it. Hughes liked what I did and when I left, I thought they had a pretty good script. Finally they called in Ben Hecht. Ben read it and told them he’d get it ready for a thousand a day, and that’s what he did. It became a very successful picture.
DLW: Then you stayed in Hollywood, writing scripts.
WRB: Yes, but I never stopped writing the books. I never went seriously into writing for pictures until nineteen thirty-eight, when I went broke. In spite of all the money I made, with practically no taxes, I went broke gambling, horses and dogs. I owned eighty dogs, at one time, on a farm, and racing. On top of that I was betting on horses. For a while I was making more money racing dogs than I was writing, because I had the National Champion race dog, and they’d pay me fifteen hundred dollars a week just to bring him to a track. Then he’d race against time. But they they knocked greyhound racing out of California and I had to ship to Boston and Florida. Pretty soon it became too expensive. So I went broke. I owed everybody. Then I wrote High Sierra. I had another big seller, I sold it to Warner Brothers for a good price, and that got me started all over again. Fine timing. Just right. I’m lucky, I tell you, I’m a lucky bastard! I quit the races, however. One day I was at Santa Anita, I won two races but both times the horses were disqualified. I never went back after that.
DLW: You haven’t had a new book out in the U.S. for twelve years.
WRB: The last one was The Cool Man, in ‘68. After several incidents I said, the hell with it so I kept writing and I just put them away. I sent two books to New York in eleven years. Fortunately, I can live without them. They’re all sorts of novels, and most of them aren’t even copies. There’s one that I love that everybody else hates. It’s called The Limelight, about a famous Hollywood actor who goes downhill and ends up owning a supper club in the Midwest. He’s deserted his family and his son is searching for him. My trouble, you see, is that I’m basically a comic writer. It’s something I’ve always had to restrain. I see the world through a funny angle.
DLW: Every once and a while it comes out.
WRB: Well, in this it comes out entirely. Dirty humor and everything.
DLW: What is your writing routine?
WRB: It changes, of course, according to circumstances. For The City People I made an attempt to master the short-short, the hardest literary form of them all. They ran from a thousand words to four thousand, averaging around two thousand. In doing them I found that I wanted to have the first paragraph verbatim, in my mind, before I started. So every time I started one of those I had the beginning ready. I’d just sit down and copy it from my mind. Then I was off, I was started.
DLW: Did you have any files, any three by five cards...?
WRB: No, I’m not methodical at all. Just the opposite. I lost all my files in the Bel Air fire. I lost my house and I lost a book, a completed novel, Young Casanova. Twenty-nine copies of the book went up in flames. A thirtieth copy had been sent to a producer who was then in a mental institution. We never found it. It was lost, completely lost.
DLW: Did you feel like trying to rewrite it?
WRB: Oh no, I couldn’t do that. Usually, about the only thing you can do is to forget it. That’s what I did.
DLW: Have you continued researching your novels, all the way along?
WRB: Well, I researched, in a sense. In Chicago, of course, I knew the police reporters. I used to go around with them, and I really got an education. I used to go to the Chicago Avenue Station. A guy named Kelly would call me up and say, “I think the wagons are going to go tonight!” I’d say, “I’ll be over!” This was the drag-up wagon. At twelve o’clock, or around there, about six paddy wagons would go to all the known underworld hang-outs and arrest everybody who couldn’t show visible means of support. Vagrancy! Vagging. It was just to teach them a lesson every once in a while and to inconvenience them. So here they’d come, wagon and wagon, men and women.
DLW: Your own workday starts at about midnight. You work at night. Is that by necessity?
WRB: No, I’ve just always done that. I’m a night person. I don’t start to function until around noon. I go to bed around four. It took my wife a while to get used to that but we’ve been married for around thirty-five years, so if she isn’t used to it now....
DLW: Most of the writers who worked for the studios seemed to get lost in scripts and adaptations. You were unusual in your ability to continue producing books.
WRB: When I tell people how fast I write a book they don’t believe me. Also, I had a different approach, because I never had any idea about making a career out of writing for movies. I never took that seriously. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I did the best possible work I could — but it was merely a way to make money so I could write novels. What my objective was, and I’m still at it, has been to give as close a picture possible of my time, and the time previous to me. It dates, in my opinion, from the Civil War to the present time, the nineteen eighties. But because a lot of novels don’t make anything, I wrote for the studios. Even though I was a well-known writer, some of my novels didn’t make anything beyond an advance, in hardback. Then we’d make some money on the paperbacks and if I’d sell it to pictures. But there’s nothing more precarious than novel writing.
DLW: Have you any doubts? Has it worried you to be out of print?
WRB: For me, it’s never been a matter of confidence or doubt, writing is an impulse. It’s what I’ve done with my life. It’s like, oh, if you don’t like this one, well, then I’ll write another one. I’ve been doing that now for sixty years.
That's the end of that portion of the interview. David has a book project cooking where he plans to include not only more of his conversation with Burnett, but much more of his Hollywood and auctorial material. If you don't already have IT'S ALWAYS FOUR O'CLOCK / IRON MAN, why don't you take advantage of the Featured Back List special above and order a copy today?
And as always, if you're not a member of our Crime Book Club, sign up now to get each book shipped to you automatically and take advantage of the special discount for new members to fill out your collection of back list titles.
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