Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Gangster Crime Novels

"They call it business. OK. But it's personal as hell. You know where I learned that from? The Don. My old man. The Godfather. . . . That's what makes him great. The Great Don. He takes everything personal." Michael Corleone responding to the assertion "It was business, not personal" in The Godfather, by Mario Puzo.

Brighton Rock, the novel, is named after Brighton rock, the candy.

The gangster novel with its layered hierarchy of villains and antiheroes has been a staple of crime fiction since the early 20th century. Although earlier writers had dabbled with gangs in their novels and short stories, Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett is often said to be the first gangster novel. What makes it a gangster novel? The reader is set squarely inside the underworld: we see things from their perspective. Their immorality and allegiances define a code of conduct and create a skewed sort of reality.

Little Caesar

Maybe it was because the bigger-than-life Rico of Edward G. Robinson (at that time in his late thirties) lurked in my mind it took me a moment to adjust to the character in the book. Rico, in contrast, is a punk, a small time crook. He takes over a gang in twenties Chicago not because he is willing to use violence, it is not a conscious decision: violence is all that he understands. Other gangsters think before striking. Rico strikes. This results in a fast trajectory up and a quick end. In fact, the novel clocks in at a brisk 160 pages.

The final line, "Mother of God," he said, "is this the end of Rico?" is echoed in Walter Winchell's narration of the film. Little Caesar evokes a dingy and amoral world, dust-bowl dry and hand at the throat, V-8s roaring and tommy guns blazing. Adding to the immorality, Walter Winchell evokes J.J. Hunsecker (Sweet Smell of Success), jazz stings, and yellow journalism.

W.R. Burnett was a classic, learned-it-from-the-streets author. He went on to have a substantive career penning High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle along with many great film scripts: The Great Escape, Scarface, This Gun for Hire, and Night People.

Author: William Riley Burnett  (aka W.R. Burnett)
Novel: Little Caesar
Publication: 1929
Rank: #75 on the MWA list.
Word Count: (160 pages) approx.: 46,000
Age of author at time of publication: 29.
Previous novels published by this author: none.
Opening line: Sam Vettori sat staring into Halsted Street.
Significance: Said to be the first gangster novel. We are immersed in the world of hoodlums. The dialogue has a gritty authenticity and lyricism.

Brighton Rock

The British author, Graham Greene, had the ability to imbue the ordinary, even the tawdry, with grandeur. A cross between Le Carré and Joseph Conrad, at his best Greene created unforgettable characters and stories, the latter including The Third Man, Our Man in Havana, The Quiet American, and Brighton Rock.

In Brighton Rock we are introduced to Pinkie, a seventeen-year-old gangster who, like Rico, is a punk who wields violence to take charge of a gang. It is hard to reduce Pinkie's actions to a simple explanation. He seems without principles and yet he is informed by his Catholic conscience. Greene, who was Catholic, falls into a trap that Hitchcock once described in regards to his film I, Confess. In that film, the priest hears the confession of a murderer and will not reveal it because of the constraints of the sacrament of confession. The priest stays silent even when he, himself becomes a suspect. The reasoning of Catholicism is often foreign to others and in Brighton Rock, Pinkie has no problems with killing others but will marry to hush up a witness.

In spite of this, the overall verdict: the complexity of the characters, the beautiful descriptions of a grimy setting and grimy lives make this book a classic.

Author: Henry Graham Greene (aka Graham Greene)
Novel: Brighton Rock
Publication: 1938
Rank: #46 on the CWA list, #69 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 89305
Age of author at time of publication: 33.
Previous novels published by this author: six.
Opening line: Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.
Significance: A perfect blend of literature and suspense.

The Godfather

Reading The Godfather at times felt like reading the novelization of a movie. So many phrases have entered our culture, our very vocabulary, that I half-expected to turn the page and read about Michael Corleone clicking his ruby slippers and saying, "There's no place like home."

Like The Wizard of Oz, like The Simpsons, The Godfather permeates our culture.

But there is more to the novel than memorable dialogue. The book feels at times like a series of interconnecting novellas, this part following the trajectory of Michael Corleone's life as he not-very-reluctantly becomes a Mafia don; another part following the singing career of Johnny Fontane, who had only a minor role in the film. In fact, one of the major delights of the book comes from filling out the stories of those who were given cameos.

The Godfather shows the influence of its time. It has that sensationalist feel of The Valley of the Dolls. It has that broad story feel of a 1960's Cinemascope film. And of course, it has that sweet violin score of the Francis Ford Coppola's pair of early 70's epics.

Overall verdict: not great literature, but great Americana.

Oh, you liquidated her, eh? Very resourceful!

Author: Mario Puzo
Novel: The Godfather
Publication: 1969
Rank: #15 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 165245
Age of author at time of publication: 48.
Previous novels published by this author: five.
Opening line: Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.
Significance: You think another gangster novel had this kind of juice? Fugged-about-it. Became the most influential film of all time: instead of "Return of" and "Revenge of," it taught sequels to use numbers.


 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 


  1. Oddly enough, I read The Godfather but have never seen the movie. As the first really sexy novel I read (yes, I was in my teens at the time), it was interesting, but little more.

  2. Oh, and what about the stories of Damon Runyan, which are about gangsters, but in a way more light-hearted vein.

  3. I thought about mentioning Runyon and did briefly pass over the aspect of others having laid the gangster story foundation in short stories. Runyon's first short story collection (Guys and Dolls) came in 1932.