The Little Cesar Syndrome

Okay, so the last time I sat down to blog, I was halfway through Don Winslow’s Power of the Dog. Great fuckin’ book, by the way. As corny as it sounds, a major achievement is the best way to describe the Dog. Incredible. Anyway, I was pondering how fiction models itself after real life. At least it does if it’s good. The ol’ art imitating life thing. You know, contemplating, like we do.

cartel1Cut to a month later, I’m reading the sequel to Power of the Dog, The Cartel. It’s another massive tome covering a huge space of time and history.  But … it IS a sequel. And it feels like one. Some of my favorite characters from Dog were killed off before the end of the first book because, well, that’s what happens in good crime fiction. However, in The Cartel, their roles are filled with similar characters with similar arcs and it got me to thinking.

Are these replacement characters designed that way for a reason? Is there some sort of well-crafted balance between the traditional lines of good and evil–Joseph Campbell style–that must be adhered to? In order for the story to progress, is it necessary for these characters to be hammered into tropes? Into stereotypes?

Then it hit me.

Little Cesar

Of course the damn thing is filled with tropes and stereotypes, because that’s what real life gives serves up. They call ‘em stereotypes for a reason. You know when frustrated law enforcement officers say, take down this bad guy and another will pop up to take his place? They say it because it’s true!

I started thinking about real life. About guys like John Gotti, or even Carlo Gambino. Gotti’s rags to riches story, Carlo’s quiet, unassuming reign. Text book, the both of ’em. Then I started thinking about some of my own criminal experiences and how I’ve seen guys react, even on a smaller scale, to sitting on the throne. How a guy–a mob boss, or a lowlife running a small crew–will develop what I call the “Little Cesar” complex. You kngottiow, the guy that fights his way to the top only to become a bigger asshole than the guy he’s toppled to get there. I’ve watched it happen in organized crime, and I’ve seen it up close with petty crime. It doesn’t take much power to get the “heavy is the head that wears the crown” syndrome. The backbiting, the betrayal, the jealousy, the paranoia (usually justified) play themselves out over and over again in the stories of our lives. Why wouldn’t they play out in fiction too?

Power really does corrupt and greed does drive bad decisions. And folks who are attracted to “that life” are, for the most part, unoriginal. Go spend some time in the prison visiting room or get in line at the methadone clinic and tell me if you see something completely different than what you thought you’d see.

If criminals and cops want to see different portrayals of themselves in books and movies, they’d better stop acting (and dressing) like they just walked out of central casting.

Okay, that’s enough contemplating for now.

2 Responses to “The Little Cesar Syndrome”

  1. Dana King

    Well put. Every “organization” has roles that need to be filled, and, since nature abhors a vacuum, those roles WILL be filled. The trick as a writer is not to fill them with carbon copy people. The new underboss–just to pick a role–needs to have different taste in clothes, different interests, and, qute possibly, a different relation with the boss and/or the troops. THAT’s where the differences come in.

  2. Tom Pitts

    True. I guess I was just amused at how many times carbon copy people fill those rolls in real life. In this way, I think we demand more from our fiction than what’s behind the stories we see on the evening news.


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