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” (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.
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 or 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 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.
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.
Fast One 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” (1932); or Red, who narrates “Parlor Trick” (1932) and “Trouble-Chaser” (1932); or “St. Nick” Green of “Pineapple” (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 “The” from the magazine’s title.) Twelve of the 14 hard-boiled stories reprinted in The Complete Slayers 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. “Dashiell paused on the threshold, Paul went all the way.”
Whatever Shaw meant by “grim hardness,” it isn’t to everyone’s taste. The stories in The Complete Slayers carry 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 are duly reverential, but some can’t hide their qualms. While Robert Randisi notes that Cain’s work is “[b]etter than most” of the Black Mask set, he still ranks it “a notch or two below that of Chandler and Hammett.” As Gorman puts 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 capital’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 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.
On November 2, 1986 the Los Angeles Times ran the following ad in the classifieds:
I am writing a biography of the
hard-boiled novelist Paul Cain
(a.k.a. Peter Ruric/George Sims),
author of the classic Los Angeles
gangster novel “Fast One” (1933).
I would appreciate hearing from
anyone with letters or biographical
DAVID A. BOWMAN
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.
The photo that accompanies the essay — a high-angle, ¾ portrait of Cain’s bearded face, with a diagonal white bar across his eyes — originally appeared on the inside flap of Fast One. It’s the only picture of Cain ever published, and might as well have been taken by Man Ray. The white band is an obvious but striking feature. So is his first self-obliterating, deflective, yet spasmodically revealing autobiographical sketch, which begins:
PAUL CAIN isn’t his real name.
is slender, blond, usually bearded.
has wasted his first thirty years as a
matter of course and principle; wandered
over South America, Europe,
northern Africa and the Near East;
been a buson’s-mate, Dada painter,
gambler, and a “no”-man in Hollywood.
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.”
Cain’s lies — and many were to follow in subsequent autobiographical statements — form a predictable pattern: unlikely ports of call, unbelievable occupations, and preposterous literary accomplishments. He never completed “a new novel of crime and blood and thunder, tentatively titled Three in the Dark,” and no library in the world holds “a melodramatic farce” titled Young Man Sees God, or any of his other supposed titles: Hypersensualism: A Practical Philosophy for Acrobats; Syncopaen; The Naked Man; Advertisement for Death; Broad; The Cock-Eyed Angel; Seven Men Named Caesar; or The Ecstasy Department. Nor is it likely that anyone will ever track down the long-lost acetate reels of Cain’s “motion picture to end motion pictures entitled Grapefruit and You,” which somehow calls to mind the Gerry Kells-like Jimmy Cagney flattening a grapefruit on Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy (1931) — except you’re Mae Clarke. And of course Fast One, too, might just be a gag.
Cain/Ruric was, in fact, an Iowan named George Carroll Sims, born in 1902. The information that Myers and Collins dig up on Sims’s background will be fascinating to fans, but the sad contours of his life are already familiar: his humdrum career in Hollywood, distinguished only by his collaboration with Edgar G. Ulmer on the script for The Black Cat (1934); a damaging relationship with an alcoholic actress named Gertrude Michael; a failed marriage to a much younger “cigarette girl,” who changed her name, at her husband’s suggestion, to Mushel Ruric, and another to a Spanish woman named Peggy; his own consuming addiction to drink; and his death in obscurity in 1966.
Giving oneself over to a genre reveals more than one intends. Things swim up. Myers and Collins conjecture that some of the stories contain autobiographical elements, mostly by way of names. They write, for instance, that “‘Hunch’ is a very personal story for the author as he names a police detective Freberg (from his mother’s maiden name and perhaps character traits from his police-detective 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.” 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.
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” (1936), a dipsomaniac starlet is fatally bludgeoned with an “outsize vibrator.” Myers and Collins describe the episode as a “literary ‘fast one’ on Joe Shaw,” who was notoriously “repressed,” but this tendentious joke discloses much more about what Sims himself was repressing.
Then there’s “The Tasting Machine” (1949), the last piece of fiction Sims published. It appeared under the Peter Ruric byline in Gourmet magazine. The story is collected here, although it is expressly not one of Cain’s hard-boiled narratives. On the surface, it’s another experiment in style — 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.
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.
This surreal joke-work in Gourmet magazine casts a disturbing 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.
Sims was an alcoholic and a compulsive liar. An ironist given to elaborate fronts that revealed as much as they concealed. A man whose 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.”