It’s about time all of Paul Cain’s published fiction was reprinted and collected. When people say Cain was a run-of-the-mill writer whose work deserves to fall out of print (“Cain wasn’t any good,” The Wall Street Journal bluntly assessed in March), I say that his work speaks to many readers 80 years later who continue to champion his work.
If you’re familiar with Cain and like his work, you’ve already ordered the book. If you’ve never read his sole novel, Fast One, you owe it to yourself to at least give it a shot.
Cain is often viewed as the hardest of the hard-boiled, toughest of the tough guys. He hacked down sentences to the bare minimum. Sometimes less than that.
Yet it’s wrong to see Cain merely as an artist of the stripped-down narrative. It wasn’t an axe he was wielding—it was more like an X-Acto knife to the manuscript page. Consider the following passage from Fast One:
Grandquist stood in the doorway, swaying. Her eyes were heavy with sleep and she stared drunkenly about the room, finally focused on Kells. She sneered as if it were difficult for her to control her facial muscles, put one hand on the doorframe to steady herself.
She said thickly: “Hello, bastard.”
Kells looked away from her, spoke to Crotti, “Nice quiet girl,” he said. “Just the kind you want to take home and introduce to your folks.”
Crotti laughed soundlessly.
Grandquist staggered forward, stood swaying above Kells. “Bastard framed me,” she mumbled, “tried t’ tag me f’ murder....”
She put one hand out tentatively as if she were about to catch a fly, and slapped Kells very hard across the face.
Crotti stood up suddenly.
Kells reached out and pushed Grandquist gently away and said: “Don’t be effeminate.”
Despite the brevity of Cain’s work, there isn’t a lack of emotion or the sly humor of his brethren. Note that this passage is from the original serial publication of Fast One, the version reprinted in Complete Slayers, making it available for the first time since it ran in five issues of Black Mask in 1932. Later, when Cain revised Fast One into novel form, he snipped out “he saids” and “ands” from this passage. (It’s not difficult to trim back on extraneous words when one isn’t being paid a penny for each of them!)
In addition to Cain’s novel, Complete Slayers includes short stories previously collected and published in Seven Slayers. Both Fast One and Seven Slayers have been reprinted many times over the years. But what puts Complete Slayers over the top is the serial version of Fast One and the inclusion of eight Cain short stories rarely or never reprinted since original publication. When people say his writing was flat and emotionless, I think about the gentle proposal that closes his short story, “Red 71,” mixing brute violence and tenderness like no other credible pulp narrative.
Cain isn’t the only obscure pulp writer sorely in need of an anthology. In fact, he’s probably the most widely read of the so-called obscure.
Surely a complete anthology of Norbert Davis, with his ribald Max Latin and “Bail Bond” Dodd stories, is more than called for. It’s arguable that Davis’s pulp stories are stronger than his three consistently amusing novels.
For quality alone, Richard Dermody’s Doc Pierce stories, in which the grifting Doc is always undone by his own schemes, should be read and reassessed by a new generation.
If you’re weighing a Paul Cain purchase, don’t think about it too much. The book may be sold out by the time you read this, as there are only 500 of these numbered puppies.