The Incomplete Cain



on the grim hardness of a neglected noir master.

Photograph of Paul Cain from back inside flap of Fast One’s first edition (1933)
Photographer Unknown

Paul Cain
The Complete Slayers: Fast One and the Complete Short Stories of Paul Cain

Centipede Press, February 2012. 300 pp.

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.

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