The Paul Cain Omnibus

BOOK: The Paul Cain Omnibus
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Illustrations by

Introduction by

Conceived and Edited by

Paul Cain by Boris Dralyuk

Coleman said: “Eight ball in the corner.”

There was soft click of ball against ball and then sharper click as the black ball dropped into the pocket Coleman had called.

— Paul Cain, “Murder Done in Blue”

omebody always takes it about as far as it’ll go, and no one took the hard-boiled farther than Paul Cain. Raymond Chandler tagged Cain’s only novel, 
Fast One
 (1933), as “some kind of high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner.” They use that as a blurb; to my mind, those qualifications—“some kind,” “ultra”—reek of anxiety. Stacked pound-for-pound against Cain’s lean and war-hardened antihero Gerry Kells, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe comes off like a flabby, eccentric chatterbox—more Sydney Greenstreet than Humphrey Bogart.

The novel’s title says it all: 
Fast One
. Some have called it 
A Fast One
The Fast One
, but that’s not it. There’s neither need nor time for articles. Someone or something, in the singular, is fast. Fast and singular. And the chase is on:

Kells walked north on Spring. At Fifth he turned west, walked two blocks, turned into a small cigar store. He nodded to the squat bald man behind the counter and went on through the ground-glass-paneled door into a large and bare back room.

There’s so much momentum in those first lines—so little 
 movement—that the reader can hardly keep up, much less take a pause. A pause might raise some questions. Just how does Kells get through that ground-glass-paneled door? Does he open it? Bust right through it? Roll through it as if it didn’t exist? But, of course, the door doesn’t exist. Cain’s language is stripped so bare it’s hardly referential. That’s the central paradox of the hard-boiled style: For all its reputed hardness, the universe it conjures is eerily immaterial—verbal, not substantive. Hard-boiled protagonists throw punches indefatigably, get blackjacked unconscious at the end of one chapter only to emerge with a slight headache at the start of the next, and keep moving to the last.

Cain’s characters aren’t people, they’re billiard balls, propelled by an initial push and colliding till they’re all sunk—“One, Two, Three,” as the title of one of his stories has it. 
Fast One
’s first chapter, which starts with Kells rolling down Spring in downtown L.A., set to spark a gang war, ends with a kind of carom shot involving a gambler named Jake Rose and a pint-sized triggerman:

Rose came around the desk and took the automatic out of Kells’ belt, held it by the barrel and swung it swiftly back and then forward at Kells’ head. Kells moved his hand enough to take most of the butt of the automatic on his knuckles, and bent his knees and grabbed Rose’s arm. Then he fell backwards, pulled Rose down with him.

The little man came into the room quickly and kicked the side of Kells’ head very hard. Kells relaxed his grip on Rose and Rose stood up, brushed himself off and went over and kicked Kells very carefully, drawing his foot back and aiming, and then kicking very accurately and hard.

The kitten jumped off the desk and went to Kells’ bloody head and sniffed delicately. Kells could feel the kitten’s warm breath. Then everything got dark and he couldn’t feel anything any more.

That kitten is a nice touch. Sniffing, “delicately,” at a not-quite-dead piece of meat. Just another animal, drawn to a meal.

It’s hard to believe that the first installment of
Fast One
, which debuted in the March 1932 issue of
Black Mask
, is Cain’s first appearance in print. He hit the ground running. The novel sets the pace for Cain’s other stories, while Kells sets the mold for their protagonists: obdurate plug-uglies or clever machers, such as the titular narrator of “Black” (May 1932); or Red, who narrates “Parlor Trick” (July 1932) and “Trouble-Chaser” (April 1934); or “St. Nick” Green of “Pineapple” (March 1936). Black, Red, Green—beautifully rendered abstractions careening across the flat surface of Cain’s prose.

* * *

Cain got his break thanks to Captain Joseph T. Shaw. In 1926, Shaw took the helm of what was then called 
The Black Mask
 magazine, a matrix for the hard-boiled style. (One of Shaw’s first acts as editor was dropping the “
” from the magazine’s title.) Twelve of the fifteen hard-boiled stories reprinted in this volume first appeared in 
Black Mask
, along with the five stories that were eventually sutured together as 
Fast One
. Shaw’s previous star contributor, Dashiell Hammett, left the magazine in 1931, the year Cain arrived. Shaw himself was forced out by the publisher in 1936, the year Cain’s last story appeared in the magazine. Cain wasn’t just Hammett’s successor, to Shaw’s mind: “in the matter of grim hardness,” he wrote, Cain was Hammett’s superior. “Dash paused on the threshold, [Cain] went all the way.”

Whatever Shaw meant by “grim hardness,” it isn’t to everyone’s taste. An earlier edition of Cain’s stories from Centipede Press carried brief, perceptive introductions by leading names in crime writing, including Ed Gorman, Joe Gores, Edward D. Hoch, John Lutz, and Bill Pronzini. Most of the commentators were duly reverential, but some couldn’t hide their qualms. While Robert Randisi noted that Cain’s work is “[b]etter than most” of the 
Black Mask
 set, he still ranked it “a notch or two below that of Chandler and Hammett.” As Gorman put it, “[t]here is in Hammett a great sorrow and in Chandler great melancholy. Not a trace of either appears in Cain.”

What Gorman mourns is the absence of an emotional load. But that lack is only the symptom of a profounder vacancy. Hammett was an inveterate lefty, and used the Continental Op to lance capitalism’s Poisonvilles, while Chandler, who admits to having learned “American just like a foreign language,” forever remained an outraged public school boy, pinning his hopes for civilization on a medieval knight in a powder-blue suit. One red and the other reactionary, both Hammett and Chandler harbored strong convictions—convictions expressed, whether intentionally or not, through their chosen genre. Not so with Cain, who seems to have been free of any such burden. The main thing his work expresses is the genre itself, in all its inexorable but essentially meaningless logic. He’s the oracle at 
Black Mask
, huffing the fumes of Capt. Shaw’s cigars and delivering an almost unmediated vision of the hard-boiled as such.

* * *

In “Back in the Old 
Black Mask
” (1987), the writer and historian William Brandon, who cut his teeth at Shaw’s “rough paper,” recalled his early mentor’s thoughts on “objective writing”:

Objectivity was part of what Shaw meant by style—a clean page, a clean line, an uncluttered phrase. I remember him showing me a couple of lines in a manuscript of Raymond Chandler’s, something such as, “I looked into the fire and smoked a cigarette. Then I went to bed.” This was the key line of the story, Shaw said. In those few minutes watching the fire the protagonist thought the problem through and reached his tough decision. You weren’t told that but you knew it. The line was clean, the effect was subtle but strong. Objective writing was good hard prose as against the spongy prose of subjectivity.

One senses that Shaw’s proclamation isn’t simply an older writer’s attempt to provoke or mystify a starry-eyed tyro. The line may or may not be pivotal for Chandler’s story, but it certainly provides a key to Shaw’s notion of storytelling. Rudimentary and drained of character, these two sentences report nothing but action that’s only implicitly, if at all, related to the plot. Brandon recalls another of Shaw’s edicts, more telling than the first:

A letter from Hammett, Shaw said one day, had included the line, “I can make a better wall with the same bricks now than I could make a year ago.” Shaw was much taken by the image of the wall and referred to it again and again. “It’s the wall itself that counts for the writer,” he said, “not what it closes in or out—that’s for the critics to mull over. The writer’s business is just making the best wall he can.”

Although Shaw insisted in the March 1931 issue of 
Black Mask
that the magazine’s contents reflected his readership’s distinctly modern morality, which opposed “unfairness, trickery, injustice, cowardly underhandedness” and stood “for a square deal and a fair show in little or big things,” his shoptalk with Brandon exposes him as something of a doctrinaire formalist.
And despite their formal mastery, neither Hammett nor Chandler could quite force themselves to build a wall without considering what lies on either side of it. Cain, on the other hand, was ideally suited to the job. His spare vocabulary, skeletal syntax, and relentless action do more than realize Shaw’s ideal—they brazenly bare the genre’s devices, leaving readers like Gorman vaguely disconcerted and hungry for substance. This isn’t to say that Cain had nothing new to offer: His protagonists—gangsters, gamblers, and addicts—are some of the first true antiheroes in the hard-boiled tradition. But this, too, only takes the device of the ambiguously or unconventionally moral detective hero to its logical conclusion, demonstrating that the genre’s animating feature is action, not character. As Irvin Faust writes in the afterword to a 1978 reprint of 
Fast One
, “the pace takes over, is itself a major character, perhaps 
 major character, and it controls the book.”
Cain doesn’t merely stick to 
Black Mask
’s reduced palette; his Blacks, Reds, and Greens constantly call attention to its elemental makeup. One risk of this approach, of course, is painting oneself into a corner. Cain “went all the way,” alright—and dropped into the pocket Shaw had called.

* * *

All the same, within the confines of his genre, Cain’s work is remarkably diverse. For a virtuoso, self-imposed limitations can be assistive, even liberating—and Cain was nothing if not virtuosic. He did with the hard-boiled manner what Paganini had done with a single string.

Fast One
and the
Black Mask
tales from which it originated—
“Fast One” (March 1932), “Lead Party” (April 1932), “Velvet” (June 1932), “The Heat” (August 1932), and “The Dark” (September 1932)—represent the summit of “grim hardness,” a third-person minimalism that realizes its own implosive potential. But Cain continued to experiment in this vein. “Murder Done in Blue” (June 1933), for instance, puts his ingenuity with the third-person perspective on full display. The story’s structure is cinematic, opening with close ups of three apparently unconnected murders before anchoring us to the protagonist who’ll connect the dots, ex-studio stuntman Johnny Doolin. Cain toys with our expectations, inviting us to an intimate dinner scene at Doolin’s kitchenette, but denying us true access:

A rather pretty fresh-faced girl was stirring something in a white saucepan on the little gas stove. She looked up and smiled and said:


ll be ready in a minute,

wiped her hands on her apron and began setting the table… .

She was twenty-three or -four, a honey-blonde pink-cheeked girl with wide gray eyes, a slender well-curved figure.

Doolin went to her and kissed the back of her neck.

The girl of indeterminate age is Doolin’s wife; the “something” in the saucepan is dinner. We get no help from Cain.

On closer inspection, however, Cain’s stories feature a complexity of characterization beyond what one expects from his style. His protagonists may, at some level, be abstractions, but they could not function if they lacked depth. They individuate in subtle ways, especially in the first-person narratives. Black, who’s as tough as they come, radiates just enough warmth, by way of humor, to suggest a hint of vulnerability:

It was dark there, there wasn

t anyone on the street—I could have walked away. I started to walk away and then the sucker instinct got the best of me and I went back and bent over him.

I shook him and said:

Come on, chump—get up out of the puddle.

A cab came around the corner and its headlights shone on me—and there I was, stooping over a drunk whom I

d never seen before, who thought my name was McCary.

And there he is, a hard man whose momentary pause, a concession to a soft instinct, sets “Black” in motion. Cain’s minimalism also creates a context for an unusually effecting depiction of shock. Consider Red’s reaction to the sight of a corpse in “Parlor Trick”: “I looked at the glass and I looked up at the man again. I think I said: ‘Christ,’ very softly.” So much hinges on that “I think,” which undermines the rigid composure of Red’s voice. It’s worth remembering that trauma and its repression are a recurrent theme. As Kells quips through a grin, “
I came back from France … with a set of medals, a beautiful case of shell shock and a morphine habit you could hang your hat on.”

BOOK: The Paul Cain Omnibus
12.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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