|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Boris Dralyuk on The Complete Slayers by Paul Cain
The Incomplete Cain
January 26th, 2012
Coleman said: "Eight ball in the corner."
— Paul Cain, "Murder Done in Blue" (1933)
SOMEBODY ALWAYS TAKES IT about as far as it'll go, and no one took the hard-boiled farther than Paul Cain. Cain's entire contribution to the genre — a slim novel and 14 stories, some of which haven't seen print since the 1930s — is now available as The Complete Slayers from Centipede Press.
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 besides 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.
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.
That kitten is a nice touch. Sniffing, "delicately," at a not-quite-dead piece of meat. Just another animal, drawn to a meal.
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 at other times Shaw insisted that Black Mask'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 the 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. The last of Cain's hard-boiled tales, "Dutch Treat" (1936), ends with yet another roughneck protagonist licking his wounds after two separate beatings:
I had a headache for a couple of weeks that moved back and forth between the place Dekker's sidekick smacked me with a timber and the spot back of the ear where the guy on the ship kicked me. But my cut of the reward paid for a lot of aspirin.
By 1936, Hammett's career as a hard-boiled novelist was over, while Chandler was already transcending the genre with his idiosyncratic ornamentalism and increasingly troubled ruminations on society and identity. Both had indicated new directions in crime fiction, partly because neither had ever played precisely by Shaw's rules. But Cain "went all the way," alright — and dropped into the pocket Shaw had called.
Bowman never did produce his book-length biography. I suspect that Cain hadn't left enough for him to scrape together. And it's almost certain that much of what he did find couldn't be verified. Along with essays by E. R. Hagemann and Peter Gunn, and book chapters by William F. Nolan, David E. Wilt, and Woody Haut, Bowman's introduction to the 1987 Black Lizard edition of Fast One is still one of the best sources on Cain's life. Lynn F. Myers Jr. and Max Allan Collins's introduction to The Complete Slayers, the aptly titled "Chasing Shadows: The Life of Paul Cain," adds a few brushstrokes to that portrait. And yet, thanks largely to his own efforts, Cain remains a cipher.
PAUL CAIN isn't his real name.
Paul Cain was not his real name. Nor was George/Peter Ruric, the moniker which he'd taken up in Hollywood in the twenties. It was at this time that his flair for pseudonyms left a permanent mark on Myrna Williams, a young starlet searching for a screen name. In her memoir, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming (1987), she writes: "Peter Rurick [sic], a wild Russian writer of free verse, suddenly came up with 'Myrna Loy.' And I said, 'What's that?' It sounded alright, but I still wasn't convinced about changing my name." A Russian free-verse poet? Surely a ruse, but his research was passable. He probably borrowed Peter from Peter the Great, and Ruric from the ninth-century founder of the Rurikid dynasty. And Myrna Loy, for its part, sounds suspiciously similar to Mina Loy, a real free-verse poet. Cain would later claim to have published in Blast andtransition. Anachronistic fabrications, but evidence of wide-ranging reading. Ruric would have run across Mina Loy's work in the little magazines. A couple of her "Aphorisms on Futurism" (1914) even seem to predict Cain's distinctly modernistic aesthetic: "IN pressing the material to derive its essence, matter becomes deformed. AND form hurtling against itself is thrown beyond the synopsis of vision."
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." It's commonly thought that Granquist, Fast One's alcoholic moll, is based on Cain's lover Gertrude Michael. The character's name, Myers and Collins report, came from "Des Moines neighbors of the Sims family." But this kind of reading may take us nowhere.
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.
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 ends his career with an ironic fantasy about a hypersensual stylist whose attempts to control his inner world are frustrated by mechanistic drives.