The novels of one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, W. R. Burnett
, are now out of print. Never heard of him, you say? Have you ever seen High Sierra
with Humphrey Bogart? The Great Escape
with Steve McQueen? The Asphalt Jungle
? The 1932 film Scarface
Sure, the novel Great Escape was written by Paul Brickhill, but Burnett wrote the screenplay. Burnett's filmography at IMDB spans 50 years. He was twice nominated for an Academy Award and he won an O. Henry Memorial Award in 1930.
What I love the most about our first edition copy of The Asphalt Jungle is this back panel photo, with the caption "W. R. Burnett and Mrs. Burnett." He is looking thoughtful, holding a pair of glasses in one hand while a cigarette burns in the other; she is dressed for horseback. The photo has aged better than most of the dialogue in the book. For example:
Doc, soon as you feel like it, you've got to blow. That copper's got you pegged.
How did a nice guy like Burnett learn slang like this? Every city has its dark side, and he worked in Chicago as the night clerk in a low-rent hotel. His characters come from the mean streets and are close cousins of those brought to life by Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Graham Greene.
Police, crime, loyalty between thieves: these are all elements in Burnett's novels. One of his screenplays (from his novel Iron Man) lists this as the plot:
A boxer, against the advice of his friends and family, hooks up with an ambitious blonde.
There can only be trouble ahead.
There isn't enough room in this small space to do justice to noir or hardboiled detectives, or Hollywood's detectives and the women who double-cross them. If you enjoy the hard-hitting characters of current authors Lee Child, James Ellroy, and James Sallis, then pour a shot of whiskey into a dirty glass and raise a toast to author W. R. Burnett.