William Riley Burnett was born in Springfield, Ohio, on 25 November 1899, the son of Theodore Addison Burnett and Emily Upson Colwell Morgan. He attended grammar schools in Springfield and Dayton, then moved to Columbus where he spent two years at East High School; he graduated at the age of nineteen after a further two years at Miami Military Institute in Germanstown, Ohio. From there he enrolled in the College of Journalism at Ohio State University, but stayed only one semester, attending irregularly. He had earlier, in 1918, applied for the Balloon Division of the Aviation Corps but never saw active service.
Burnett’s chief preoccupation at the time was athletics: he’d played baseball and football at prep school and was on the basketball team. Boxing was another interest, and his ambitions wavered between the prize ring, the stage and playing in a jazz band. His marriage to Marjorie Louise Bartow at the age of 21 helped settled him, although he continued to knock around a variety of jobs—factory work, selling insurence—until he found steady employment as a statistician with the Department of Industrial Relations of the State of Ohio Bureau of Labor Statistics.
During his evenings, he began to write. ‘‘After marriage, I began to read extensively, and soon began to have literary ambitions,’’ he later revealed. ‘‘I wrote without the slightest encouragement (except for my wife who entirely sympathized with my ambitions and helped me in every way) for eight years. I never sold a line. I persisted, either through stupidity or determination, I’ve never been able to decide which. By this time I had accumulated five novels, several plays, a hundred short stories; I’d tried everything but verse.’’
His manuscripts gathered dust in a trunk until 1927 when, disgusted by his failure to get anywhere, Burnett moved to Chicago, and ‘‘unwittingly [did] the very thing I should have done [earlier]. The city made a terrific impact on me.’’
Burnett found himself in a number of odd jobs at a time when Chicago was under the grip of Al Capone, whose story mirrored in many ways Burnett’s fictional crime lord Cesare Enrico Bandello. Born Alphonso Caponi in Castel Amara, near Rome, in 1895, he was the son of a shopkeeper who emigrated to America, where he worked as a grocer and barber until his death in 1920, too early to see his son successfully rise from the slum tenements of Brooklyn’s Italian quarter to become the most famous gangster of prohibition era Chicago. Like Rico, Capone began his criminal life as a small-time hood, a shop-breaker and—his first break into the lowest rungs of criminal society—bouncer at the Harvard Inn, run by Brooklyn gunman Frankie Yale.
(* Note: the following is a selection of Burnett's books that had British paperback editions. A complete bibliography of Burnett's work appears in Mean Streetmaps.)
Corgi Books S455, 1957, 188pp, 2/6. Cover by Oliver Brabbins
Hodder Paperbacks 0340-04315-6, 1968, 158pp, 3/6.
No Exit Press 0948-35353-8, 1989, 1989158pp, £1.99.
Corgi Books S536, 1958, 221pp, 2/6. Cover by Oliver Brabbins
Flamingo Books, nd (c.1973), 175pp, 30p.
Nobody Lives Forever
Corgi Books S494, 198pp, 2/6.
Corgi Books S654, 1959, 188pp, 2/6. Cover by Oliver Brabbins
Corgi Books T128, 1955, 2/-.
Corgi Books GC1523
Flamingo Books, nd (c.1973), 176pp, 30p.
Prion 1853-85346-7, 1999, 224pp.
Frederick Muller/Gold Medal 3, 1953, 172pp, 2/-.
Frederick Muller/Gold Medal 447, 1960, 158pp.
Corgi Books S422, 1957, 285pp.
Flamingo Books, nd (c.1973), 252pp, 35p.
Corgi Books P7, 1956, 222pp.
Big Stan (as by John Monaghan)
Frederick Muller/Gold Medal 75, 1955, 159pp, 2/-.
Corgi Books T152, 1956, 192pp, 2/-. Cover by unknown
Corgi Books SW1211, 1962, 158pp.
Corgi Books 660, 1959, 252pp.
Corgi Books 691, 1959, 191pp.
Corgi Books SW783, 1960, 223pp, 2/6. Cover by Kossin
Corgi Books SW1131, 1962, 157pp.
The Widow Barony
Corgi Books GN1414, 1963, 254pp.
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