Friday, February 12, 2010

Forgotten Books: Fast One by Paul Cain

When I first read Fast One, sometime around 1980, it probably qualified as a forgotten book. Heck, I was even able to afford a first edition. These days it’s more of a legendary book. It's been reprinted several times, lionized, and even adapted as a graphic novel. A guy on Abe wants $2250 for a first in a crappy dust jacket, and another guy is asking $750 for a copy without. Yikes.

Fast One  is not a whodunnit. It’s a  who’s gonna get it next, and from whom. The biggest mystery may be who (if anyone) will still be alive at the end.

Fast One has been acclaimed for its razor-sharp prose and bullet-like speed. I can’t argue with that. It’s tough, fast and to the point, probably more than any book that had come before.

I was talking to a friend about this recently and he said he didn’t particularly enjoy it. The book was all plot, he said, and almost no character development. Well, I see his point. The story appeared in Black Mask in 1932 as five separate novelettes (a sample of the last segment, called "The Dark", is featured below) . Since each piece had to stand on its own, the book has five plots, each with its own rising conflict and semi-resolution. Each story builds on those before, so things get pretty complicated. Everytime you turn a page, someone new is walking in with a gun.

As for the characters --- it’s hard to imagine a more venal bunch of amoral backstabbers assembled in a single novel. Almost without exception, they are out solely for themselves, willing to betray allies and switch allegiances at the drop of a plot point.  Imagine throwing a bunch of dirty cops, dirty politicians and just naturally dirty mobsters into a barrel and clamping on a lid. Then tumble the barrel down a hill before prying off the lid to see who claws their way out. 

Our anti-hero Gerry Kells arrives in L.A. from the East, where the cops considered him the “it” guy everytiime there was a shooting. Now out West, he just wants to be left alone to gamble and enjoy himself. Trouble is, everyone wants him on their side - and if they can’t have him they want him dead. He’s too dangerous a guy to be walking around loose.

As for character development, there actually is some, but you have to look real close. Though Kells would never admit it, his actions show he develops feelings for a couple of his more steadfast allies. In the end, he places loyalty and - perhaps - love, above his own self interest. The question is, will these uncharacteristically human qualities redeem him or destroy him?  Read it and see.

Researchers have peeled back the layers of Paul Cain to find he was actually George Sims, who also wrote screenplays as Peter Ruric. One of his first screen credits (for story, not screenplay) was for Gambling Ship, a film very loosely based on Fast One. I’m told his screenplay for the Karloff film The Black Cat is especially good. I’ll be checking it out.

In addition to Fast One, Cain had a dozen stories in Black Mask and two in other detective mags. Seven of those appear in the collection Seven Slayers and a couple have been reprinted elsewhere. The first tale in that book, about a freelance hood called Black, has been adapted for radio is playing this week only on the BBC’s “This Is Pulp Fiction” program. Pop over to Gary Dobbs’ TAINTED ARCHIVE for a link to the show. It’s somewhat abridged, but true to Cain and nicely done. 

As always, you'll find links to more Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's pattinase.

(click to enlarge)

P.S. One of the few never-reprinted Paul Cain stories is "555" from Detective Fiction Weekly of December 14, 1935. I was planning on scanning it and putting it up tomorrow - until I read it. Unfortunately, the lead character's dialogue is of the Amos 'n' Andy variety, and may be deemed offensive. So I won't be posting it. It isn't much of a story anyway - more of an extended joke - and only four pages long. Still, it is a Paul Cain tale, and there are precious few of those around. Anyone interested is invited to email me,, and I'll be happy to fire back copies of the scans.

Breaking News: It's come to my attention, via The Rap Sheet, that Vince Keenan reviewed Fast One a couple of days ago. His take on it is HERE.


Brian Drake said...

Wow, Evan, thanks for posting this! I'm a huge Cain fan and one of the first postings on my own blog concerned both Fast One and Seven Slayers. I've never seen what one of the stories looked like in its Black Mask form, so thanks for posting those pages! There was a publisher, the name of whom I forget (Crippen & Landru?), who was going to print an anthology of Cain's uncollected work (ie, everything that didn't appear in Seven Slayers) but it's never materialized. I hope someday it will!

Brian Drake said...

Here's a link to my take on the Cain canon:

Anonymous said...

Great choice, Evan. My copy is yet another edition, apparently. I read this one a while ago and for some reason it's pretty hazy though that could just be my tired old brain. Guess I'll have to pull it off the shelf and give it another reading.

Laurie Powers said...

You've done all Cain fans - and those of us wannabes - a huge favor by posting this great review. Thanks.

Todd Mason said...

As I run down Patti's alpha list, it's nice to see the MacD guys and now the Other Cain. THE BLACK CAT script as presented in the film is pretty good, not going to knock you off your pins, but the Ruric/Cain tendency to Not Dawdle is certainly present. After THE BODY SNATCHER, it's certainly the best of the Karloff/Lugosi films, and the most visually stylish bar none.

George said...

Legendary is right, Evan! AMAZON lists an omnibus edition of THE FAST ONE and SEVEN SLAYERS by Resurrectionary Press.

Evan Lewis said...

Thanks for stopping by, all. I have another unreprinted Cain story I wish I could post, but it's from Black Mask, so the rights are complicated. Still - I'll see if the issue is supple enough to scan and let you know if it's available for emailing.

Vince said...

A fine review, Evan. Happy to be paired with you at the Rap Sheet. I'm afraid I only paid $3.99 for my Kindle copy of Fast One, which I'd wanted to read for years.

The Black Cat certainly warrants a look. It's directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, so there's atmosphere to spare. Under the Ruric rubric he also wrote Grand Central Murder, a locked room mystery where the locked room is a private railway car. It's hokey, but entertaining.

Brian Drake said...

I dropped by to give this a second read tonight, Evan, and realized this is where I got the idea to title a short story of my own "The Dark"--which you may be familiar with. Thanks again for the great write-up!