bag·man (băg’mәn) n., pl. –men (mĭn). 1. Slang.

dishonest official; a person who collects, carries, or distributes illegal payoff money.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Who's Paul Cain? Hard Boiled, Harder

  “Fast One [is] some kind of high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner.”
--Raymond Chandler

The good people at Pro Se Productions recently published my novella SOMETIMES THEY PAY IN BULLETS, a tribute to Paul Cain, in their spectacularly villainous BLACK FEDORA ANTHOLOGY—which I assure you is not to be missed. It’s a collection of three very different stories, but from the villain’s point of view. Something for everyone…evil! But, several reviews I’ve seen have said, “I don’t know who Paul Cain is…” Honestly, I didn’t expect you to. But if you like Hardboiled Pulp, you should.
Most of my hardboiled friends know who Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain are. They were the lead writers of Black Mask Magazine, and America’s, Hardboiled Mystery movement. A sharp, staccato style of dialogue, action, and description pioneered by Black Mask’s editor, Cap Shaw. A world where paragraphs ended with colons before the dialogue and compound sentences were considered too complicated.
A few of my hardboiled friends are aware of Black Mask’s other fantastic stable of writers. Raoul Whitfield, Frederick Nebel, Earl Stanley Gardner, Norbert Davis and a host of others. Aces all.
 But a few years back, I remember stumbling across the quote at the beginning of this article, and asking myself the same thing. “Who is this guy?” Didn’t take long for me to find ragged old copies of the only two books Cain’s name would ever appear on, SEVEN SLAYERS and FAST ONE. Needless to say I was immediately blown away. It was like Hammett on steroids. There were no “good guys,” and just from the writing I could tell this guy knew a lot about gambling, crime, and a lifestyle a little more extreme than his average reader of the time.

“There was a man sitting one of the benches at one side of the narrow breakfast table. The table was set lengthwise into niche, with a bench at each side, and the man on one of the benches was sitting with his back in the corner of the niche, his knees drawn up, his feet on the outside end of the bench. His head was back against the wall and his eyes and mouth were open. There was a thin knife handle sticking out of one side of his throat.”
                                                --Parlor Trick by Paul Cain
Action verbs aside, if you have any doubts at all, I highly suggest you check out the short story “Parlor Trick.” It’s barely a story, almost more of a milieu. By the seventh paragraph there’s a guy with a knife in his neck sitting across the table from you, and you don’t know how it got there. Not only is this a great story from the crime genre point of view, but when you realize the biggest conflict involves the unspoken threat of “being taken for a ride,” it becomes distinctly American. I’m not sure somebody from another culture would understand the tension in the least, but for me it’s etched on every page with a dagger.
Paul Cain was the pen-name of writer Peter Ruric, whose real name might have been George Sims, but nobody seems to know for sure. FAST ONE and all the stories in SEVEN SLAYERS were published in Black Mask Magazine form originally, just like The Maltese Falcon. When Cap Shaw left the magazine, so did Cain. He appeared later as a screenwriter, then there are some family problems and alcohol, and he disappears again. He’s sighted around Spain or Belize the last I read, but I don’t think anybody really knows anything for sure. If nothing else, he should go down in history as the man who gave world famous actress Myrna Loy (The Thin Man) her stage name. Needless to say, there is more to this writer than meets the immediate eye.
Which is where FAST ONE comes in.
FAST ONE’s protagonist (he’s certainly no hero) is a guy named Kells. And to the best of my knowledge he’s the earliest precursor to all those Jim Thompson/Charles Willeford sociopaths yet to come. He’s not evil, but the man has no conscience at all. You aim at him, his plan is to already be aiming at you—and if he has to kill you, he’ll do it without remorse. From the first paragraph, Kells is getting framed and up against everybody involved in a town full of gangsters and graft. If he wasn’t ruthless he wouldn’t make it ten pages.
Take a note card—I got it the first time around, but maybe because somebody had told me to take a note card. It’s not that it’s horribly complicated. It’s just that you’re liable to get so tied up in the moment you’ll forget the moment before. The style is starker, more staccato, and filled with a 1920’s bleakness I’ve seen nowhere else. Again, the gambling, the highjackings, and especially Kell’s opium addicted buddy, all ring with realism other authors of the time lack. Methinks ol’ Paul knew just a little bit too much about this stuff in real life.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I love Paul Cain’s work. There is just not enough of it, which is why I think he remains largely forgotten today. That’s why I wrote SOMETIMES THEY PAY IN BULLETS. I wanted to make more readers aware of Paul Cain, and I wanted to have some FAST ONE type fun. The protagonist is named Keller, and the story begins in a situation much like FAST ONE. Then a whole different version of hell breaks loose—my subconscious—and it becomes an even more sardonic, twisted tale.
Yes, I wrote it in Cain’s style. Not as easy as it looks. I had to not only avoid plagiarizing, but alter my own style of description back to that of a 1920’s con man, pulp writer, movie-industry type.  In tribute to Cain, I did steal a piece of his original dialogue, “You want a glass or a funnel?” It’s solid gold, and I’ve never seen it used anywhere else.
So, “Who’s Paul Cain?”
He’s the guy who made hardboiled harder.