W.R. Burnett had first-hand experience of the world he describes in his vivid and terse novel Little Caesar (1929).
The novel’s hero, Cesare Bandello (Rico), is a “gutter Macbeth”, a bad guy who claws his way through the ranks of a Chicago gang, circa 1928. Though the image of Rico is almost inseparable from Edward G. Robinson’s star-making performance in the 1930 film version of the book, the novel, inspired in part by Machiavelli’s The Prince, remains a fuller experience. It is believed to have had a profound effect on William Faulkner, Horace McCoy, and Graham Greene.
There is nothing heroic about Rico. He is not a dashing or even especially talented man; the one gift he possesses is a laser-like focus. It is this intensity that sets him apart from the slovenly hoods that surround him.
Rico is a cold, clear-eyed student of human nature. This knowledge initially provides Rico’s success, but when it crystallizes into hubris, it results in his ultimate undoing. Rico becomes too satisfied with his success, forgetting that he has prevailed in what is essentially a jungle and that in this place, the laws of survival are immutable and unsparing.