Monday, August 10, 2009

Fast One & Seven Slayers by Paul Cain

Paul Cain’s Fast One is the literary equivalent of an ice cream headache. After your head stops hurting, you know you’ll go back for more.
Such was the case with me. I’ve given Cain’s only novel more chances than any other book. Normally, if I can’t follow a plot or the writing’s unreadable or the book is just another potboiler, I toss it – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Lawrence Block and Mickey Spillane are some of the giants I’ve abandoned.
So what is it about Paul Cain that makes him one of my top three favorite writers and keeps Fast One on my bookshelf?
Fast OneLet’s start with the book itself. Originally published in 1932 after first appearing as a set of connected novelettes in Black Mask Magazine, Fast One follows the story of Gerry Kells, a gunman/gambler/playboy from the East, who is perfectly happy cooling it in Los Angeles until the crime bosses in the city go to war. Kells won’t take sides, maintaining social connections with both gangs. But one of the crime bosses, Jack Rose, decides Kells’ stance makes him a threat, and tries to get rid of him. The action prompts Kells’ decision to take over the LA underworld himself. What follows is a roller coaster of action involving more cut-throat alliances than an episode of Survivor, and more violence than any other hard-boiled novel of the period (though, it should be noted, the violence isn’t gory or overly descriptive). When it becomes obvious that Kells has bitten off more than he can chew, and his plans begin to backfire… well, get ready for one of the most explosive kill-or-be-killed climaxes ever.
If you get that far. Some people can’t seem to get past page five.
What makes Fast One such a talked about book, I think, is the fact that it’s so hard to find. My paperback copy is a Black Lizard edition from 1987, and I had to look high and low to get a copy. I have never seen another anywhere. Prior to finally reading it, I heard only about how great it was, what an example of extreme hard-boiled style Cain had crafted. But my first reading was an utter disappointment, with the words, "What the heck is going on?" uttered every few pages. The book made no sense, and the writing was so choppy as to be almost unreadable.
Here’s an example:
Another gun roared and Kells felt the shoulder of his coat lift, tear; felt a hot stab in the muscle of his upper arm. Rose was running toward the other end of the room, zigzagging a little, swiftly. Kells started after him, stumbled, almost fell. He jerked the big automatic out of his pocket, swung it toward Rose. Then the door beyond Rose opened and someone came in. Kells couldn't see who it was; he staggered on after Rose, stopped suddenly as Rose stopped…..
Kells' gun roared… Rose's hands were together high in the air. He spun as though suspended by his hands from the ceiling, fell down to his knees, bent slowly forward.
Kells went to him swiftly and put the muzzle of the automatic against the back of his head and fired three times.
He grunted, "Compliments Flo Beery," straightened and watched Rose topple forward, crush his dead face against the floor.
He turned to look toward the rear of the room and in that instant the two big lights went out, it was entirely black.
Not exactly free-flowing prose; the book is full of passages like that. The starts and stops caused by the commas in place of conjunctions jarred me at first – I had never seen this kind of writing before.
Despite its overly favorable praise, Fast One is not the best or even the ultimate hard-boiled novel – there are many others that are much, much better.
So did Cain really write a good book? Ultimately, the answer is yes. Fast One requires very careful reading. It’s a different kind of book. The choppy, pared down style is an example of how to say more with less (contemporary authors, please note). Everything the reader needs is there. You just have to pay attention, and not stay away from the book for too long. Fast One is like a movie: you learn what’s happening only by what the characters do and say and notice. Relationships are never explained, thoughts never communicated – it’s all dialogue, action. Miss one little detail, and you might be lost.
A discussion of Fast One is incomplete without mentioning Cain’s only other book-length work, Seven Slayers, a collection of short stories (and the only follow-up to the novel). Those short stories really made me appreciate Cain’s style, his nuances. He’s excellent in short form, and it’s probably a good idea to start with Slayers first when looking at Cain’s work.
In Seven Slayers, Cain crafted a set of short stories about gangster life during Prohibition better than anybody I’ve ever read, even Hammett. While Hammett may defiantly have been the better craftsman, Cain seemed to know the underworld in all its so-called glory far better than his contemporaries and showed us what he knew without any excuses. His best characters, if not outright criminals, were outsiders who mixed with crooks and found themselves caught up in various scrapes requiring more than a gun to escape from. (I like to call them "Han Solo types" but that’s just me.)
One story in particular, "Red 71," stands out because of the understated humor in one scene, rare for Cain, where the hero, a shadowy character named Shane, tries to get some good booze and information in a speakeasy:
There were seven or eight men at the bar, two white−aproned men behind it: a squat and swarthy Italian and a heavily built Irishman.
Shane went to the far end of the room, leaned on the bar and spoke to the Italian: "What've you got that's best?"
The Italian put a bottle of brandy and a glass on the bar in front of him; Shane took a handkerchief out of his breast pocket, held the glass up to the light, wiped it carefully. He poured a drink, tasted it.
He said: "That's lousy——give me a glass of beer."
The Italian picked up the glass of brandy, drank it, put the bottle away and drew a glass of beer. He skimmed off the foam, put the tall glass on the bar.
He said: "Seventy−five cents."
Shane put a dollar bill on the bar, asked: "Kenny around?"
The Italian shook his head.
Shane said: "Where's the phone?"
The Italian inclined his head towards a narrow door back of Shane. Shane went into the booth and called the Valmouth, asked for Miss Johnson. When the connection had been made, he said: "Hello, Lorain——what room are you in? . . . All right, stay there until I get back——don't go out for anything——anybody. . . . I'm down at Jack Kenny's. . . . Tell you when I see you. . . . Uh−huh. . . . G'bye. . . ." He hung up and went back to the bar.
The Italian and the Irishman were talking together. The Irishman came down to Shane and said: "Jack's upstairs, asleep. Wha'd you want to see him about?"
"You'd better wake him up——I want to tell him how to keep out of the can." Shane tasted the beer, said: "That's lousy——give me a glass of water."
The Irishman looked at him suspiciously for a minute, put a glass of water on the bar, went to the door at the end of the room. He said: "Who'll I say it is?"
The Irishman disappeared through the door.
I like that scene.
Seven SlayersAs a whole, the stories in Seven Slayers make Fast Oneseem inferior. While the same careful attention is required when reading, the shorter pieces make following such details much easier than in the novel, where a detail on page 28 is forgotten when it reappears on page 45.
Regardless, the stories in Seven Slayers stand as some of the best examples of ‘30’s pulp fiction. Period. If Cain had decided to continue with crime writing instead of running off to Hollywood, he would have been a major contender, probably a strong rival to Hammett.
Which is why it’s a shame that Paul Cain remains in obscurity.
Paul Cain should be read not only by pulp fiction buffs and up-and-coming crime writers looking to shape their own voices, but by those interested in the aspects of Prohibition they don’t write about in history books.


  1. I've tried reading FAST ONE at least three, possibly four times. Your review is the first one I've encountered that mentions the readability problem.

    With your advice in mind , I'll probably give it another try. As soon as I dig up a copy.

  2. I don't think anybody wants to admit a book is bad, especially one that has as much hype behind it as Fast One, but if you give it a chance it really is worth the time. You may find yourself wishing it ends differently, but that's all I'll say on that topic!