The Paul Cain Omnibus (4 page)

BOOK: The Paul Cain Omnibus
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Reading them can be a painful experience. One of the longer letters is a New Year’s greeting, written aboard a German liner in Havana on the evening of December 31, 1958, and the morning of January 1, 1959—on the eve of Batista’s flight. Sims writes of his failing health, an unsuccessful attempt to place a novel called
, faint hope for a play called
The Ecstasy Department
, and his generally dwindling prospects:

“Truce” is out for the moment, honey—Doubleday is edgy about it being “uncompromisingly sexual”—they didn’t say sexy, they said sexual—and they’ll have to see more of it and for this time of unpeace it isn’t the answer. Maybe The Ecstasy Department is, but it’s in a trunk in Laguna. It probably isn’t the answer either—there are so few answers left for a man with thought shaped like mine who is fighting for so much more than his life. I thought of a cheap hotel in some small town by the sea in Florida. Is there one? So. After, conceivably, getting physically well in the sun, what would I do? I thought of S. America. I thought of Africa. (I whisper this, ever so gently—a man in even consummately concealed sorrow is not made welcome in new places. They know. He’s not made welcome in old places either. I may learn to ever more consummately conceal it during this, God grant, short empty interval, but I shall never be really welcome again anywhere until I am whole again. Stop. Unwhisper.)

In the end, his consummate disguises worn thin, Sims returned to Los Angeles: “And so, whether I like it or not, California seems to be in the cards, so I’m trying to like it. It takes a certain kind of courage to go back there looking like a tramp and face the music and the bill-collectors and our friends.”

Cracking Hollywood again proved nearly impossible. His last credit is for a contribution to the script of “The Man from Blackhawk,” an episode of the TV Western
The Lady in Yellow
, which aired on January 24, 1960. His letters—one sent from Mrs. Tita D’Oporto’s Studio House apartment at 6201 Fountain Avenue, several cuts below the Montecito—tell of strained circumstances. He claims that three stories he had written for a television series were abruptly shelved. Above all, he longs to reunite with his family, pleading for a response, composing nursery rhymes for his children, and crowding the letters’ margins with doodles of concentric hearts and polka-dotted elephants:

If you said, ‘They’re paying high wages in the brinzel factory at Dimpling Ky. and need men—we’ll meet you there—you can work on books and stories nightstand Sundays,’ I’d be there so fast it would make all our Ruric heads spin.

Peggy, who now lives in Richmond, Virginia, still keeps these letters, along with other mementos of their relationship. He never stopped writing to her, and she responded when she could, even after remarrying in June 1962. Suffused with charm and punctured by whispered sorrow, Sims’s letters may be his last great work. They offer us a fleeting glimpse of the man behind the fiction, who had found happiness in family life and was desperate to recapture it.

Sims died of ureter and lung cancer on June 23, 1966. His last known address was a small bungalow at 6127 Glen Holly Street; he passed away at the Toluca Lake Convalescent Hospital. His death certificate states that he had made Los Angeles his home for 48 years, and had been an author for 43 of them. Sims’s first bold autobiographical statement supports this claim, by hook or by crook. He might have been telling the truth when he listed himself as an “author” in the 1923 L. A. City Directory, although no one has yet found any of his writing from that period. And if he had been lying, then that listing was his first work of fiction, published 43 years before his death.

Bowman tracked Sims’s posthumous fate to another dead end: “His body was cremated, and the box of ashes sat in a Glendale cemetery’s storage room until 1968 when it was shipped to Hawaii to the care of a woman who was either an old lover or an old friend.”

The ashes were stored at Glendale’s Grand View Memorial Park, and dispatched to Honolulu’s Nuuanu Memorial Park on May 24, 1968. At that time, Peggy and her boys were living in Honolulu, where her second husband, a neurologist, was stationed during the Vietnam War. Peggy did not claim the ashes, but Sims had known that she and the kids would be in Hawaii. She conjectures that he arranged for a friend to scatter his ashes near his family.

This friend was likely Tita D’Oporto, who appears to have been as close to the man in the final years of his life as anyone. The “Peter Ruric AKA George Sims” file at the Crippen Mortuary in La Crescenta, which bought the Eckerman-Heisman Mortuary that had handled Sims’s cremation, contains letters and notes from D’Oporto, her attorney, and Sims’s maternal aunt, Alma E. Winkler. It is D’Oporto who took the greatest interest in Sims’s affairs. She lived next door to him on Glen Holly Street, but was abroad when he passed. Upon her return, she contacted the mortuary and informed them that his wishes were to have his cremains scattered at sea. She herself passed away in Hawaii in 1976.

In 1965, D’Oporto sent a letter to Sims’s aunt, enclosing a Western Union telegram that a young George Sims had wired to his grandmother on October 31, 1919. D’Oporto’s letter hints at the dire straits in which Sims found himself in his final years and points to the lingering mysteries of his life:

Peter is 63 years old, his birthday was May 30th, 1902. The enclosed wire is dated 1919, so he would have been 17 years then and maybe they have a record of his service in the Navy in Des Moines. Would you try to find out? I was at the navy Recruiting Office in L–A– and could not get anywhere. They told me I would have to write to Washington D.C. but have to have his service number—but if he was stationed in Des Moines, it may be easier to get it there.

Peter gets now $ 52.– Social Security and $ 75.– disability check. They said he should get about $ 100 from the Navy if he is disabled. When in the Hospital, he does not get the disability check, but a bill for over $ 40 a day, which, I believe, is a matter of form and they will not collect it unless he should be able to work again. He does not remember anything about the Navy and I did not show him the wire. He never told me that he was George Sims. There is no use to bring it up unless necessary for him, I thought. His mind is not always clear, that is, he does not remember things and people at times. I feel very sad about it all and wished I could do more for him.

I must close now—still have plenty to do, but I would like to see you again—maybe when Peter feels better and we all can meet.

The wire itself, sent collect from Detroit and telegraphic by definition, is the work of a young man commencing a life of misadventures both on and off the page:




There is an equal measure of exuberance and desperation in all of Sims’s writing. His telegram confirms, perhaps, what he had claimed in a letter to Shaw in 1944—that he’d spent a part of his youth in Chicago. But it appears to have been a small part.

The U.S. Navy Reserve archives contain the record of one George Caryl Sims, who enlisted on June 7, 1917 and was to serve a stint until May 30, 1923. Sims—described as a ruddy, 5’ 8”, 131 lb., 17-year-old, with a 3” operation scar on his right abdomen—was discharged on January 17, 1921 for “inaptitude.” The record includes pleas for the boy’s release from Rep. C. C. Dowell, on the grounds that his mother is ill and needs his help, and responses from the office of then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt­. It is a less-than-stellar record of accomplishments—featuring several incidents of losing government property, disregard of orders, and disobedience. So began one of the strangest careers in hardboiled fiction.

* * *

Giving oneself over to a genre reveals more than one intends. Things swim up. A reader is tempted to mine the stories for autobiographical traces—and traces abound. As Myers and Collins point out, the boorish police dick Freberg in “Hunch” bears Sims’s mother’s maiden name, and wears a badge, like his father.
Make what you will, then, of Freberg’s fate:

He caught Freberg by the throat with his right hand drew his left far back and snapped it suddenly forward; he could feel his hard fist sink into the soft pallor of Freberg’s face. Freberg crashed into the wall, sank slowly to the floor… . He glanced back at Freberg once, expressionlessly, then he went out and closed the door.

The protagonist justifies Freberg’s beating with a cryptic suggestion: “I know where he buries the bodies.” Myers and Collins report that
Fast One
’s Granquist shares a name with a family that resided in Des Moines.
But this kind of reading may take us nowhere.

What erupts in the stories, regardless of names, are fits of misogyny, which are pronounced even in a 
Black Mask
 context. Women get their lights punched out for their own good: “‘Papa knows best, baby.’ He brought one arm up stiffly, swiftly from his side; the palm down, his fist clinched. His knuckles smacked sharply against her chin” (
Fast One
). Women wreak havoc in men’s lives and are punished gruesomely. In the late “Death Song” (January 1936), a dipsomaniac starlet is fatally bludgeoned with an “outsize vibrator.” It’s a joke, yes, but a tendentious one—disclosing something of what Sims may have been repressing. He wrote the story when Michael’s career was in serious peril, after a well-publicized car crash in San Bernardino and ahead of a mysterious hospitalization in New York for “toxic poisoning.”

They may be playful experiments with form, but the Paul Cain stories are studded with laconic indications of buried trauma, resentment, and addiction.

Then there’s “The Tasting Machine” (1949), the last piece of fiction Sims published. It appeared under the Peter Ruric byline in 
 magazine, which would later run his article on Mallorcan cuisine. The story is collected here, although it is expressly not one of Cain’s hard-boiled narratives. Rather, it’s something like a hypertrophied version of John Collier’s urbane fantasies. Compare its first sentence to the opening of 
Fast One

In fine weather, of which there was a spate that summer, it was the whim of M. Etienne de Rocoque to emerge from his restaurant in East Sixty-first Street at exactly six-thirteen of an evening and stroll west to Fifth Avenue, south to Sixtieth, east to Park Avenue, north to Sixty-first, and so back to the restaurant and home.

The protagonist’s very name signifies a new point of departure, a Rococo tumescence that stands in direct opposition to Cain’s minimalism. But style is ultimately style, and this is another exercise.

De Rocoque is a master chef, who holds a beautiful girl named Mercedes captive above his restaurant. He had “snatched” her “from the harem of a mighty caliph at the age of three”—“after wading through veritable seas of blood”—and has “reared” her for the last fifteen years, “inviolate from the world.” Among de Rocoque’s companions is a talking myna bird named Gertrude, “whose words and usually her sentiments were most uncouth.” The chef’s ménage is invaded by a little robot dead-set on tasting everything in its path, including Mercedes. The story climaxes as Mercedes—sequestered with the tasting machine—cries out in either agony or joy, while de Rocoque strikes at her locked door with an ax. Sims’s career in fiction ends with an ironic fantasy about a hypersensual stylist whose attempts to control his inner world are born of insecurity and frustrated by mechanistic drives.

This surreal joke-work in 
 magazine casts an odd backward light on the Cain stories. Losing himself in the styles he’d mastered, Sims gave free rein to the things he most wished to obscure. But whatever it is that initially pushed him to the outer reaches of the hard-boiled and propelled his characters on their collision courses, the work he left behind as Cain won’t be outdone.

Paul Cain was not the only
Black Mask
regular to transcend the limitations of his genre, but he is unique in having transcended those limitations by exploiting them to their fullest. He achieved a refinement of the hard-boiled manner that is truly exhilarating. Unlike Hammett and Chandler, whose work reckoned with the problems of modernity, Cain embraced a modernist aesthetic, manipulating the devices available to him with radical experimental energy. Cain’s focus on aesthetics accounts for the dizzying diversity of his fiction—his use of a variety of perspectives, stylistic registers in dialogue, and narrative structures. This focus also liberated Cain from moral concerns, allowing him to craft distinctly modern antiheroes whose compulsive, uninhibited risk-taking is a fictional analog to their creator’s own approach to writing.

Cain’s work is anything but confessional, but this triumph of style, this masterful performance—this modernistic put-on, as it were—testifies to the tremendous gifts and troubles of the man behind the pose. The stories bear his indelible signature, in invisible ink.

Sims was an ironist given to elaborate fronts that revealed as much as they concealed. His tenuous grasp on his own identity allowed him to sink, for a brief time, into the role of Paul Cain, and to keep playing as long as he could. As the narrator of “Dutch Treat” says about a game of “Spit-in-the-Ocean,” “I won, or maybe I lost—I forget which.”

The letters and drafts quoted in this introduction are housed in box 33, folder 9, of the E. R. Hagemann Papers and Collection of Detective Fiction (1672), and box 5, folder 6, of the Joseph T. Shaw Papers (2052)—both in the Department of Special Collections of UCLA’s Young Research Library—in the Sinclair Lewis Letters to Marcella Powers collection, at the St. Cloud State University Archives, St. Cloud, Minnesota, and in the “Peter Ruric AKA George Sims” file at the Crippen Mortuary, located at 2900 Honolulu Avenue, La Crescenta, CA 91214. I thank the library staffs, the staff at the Crippen Mortuary, and the Harrelson family for permission to quote this material. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and I thank them for the chance to amend, expand, and republish it. I am especially grateful to Keith Alan Deutsch, my brilliant, indefatigable editor, for soliciting this piece, for helping me at every stage of the writing process, and—most of all—for facilitating Paul Cain’s long-deserved rediscovery.

BOOK: The Paul Cain Omnibus
4.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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