The Black Mask School. The tough-guy writers of the ’30s. The boys in the backroom. The masters of noir. All those phrases have been used to describe the pioneers of hard-boiled, American crime fiction.
Long disdained, the best of these pulp storytellers began to be rediscovered in the 1980s when Black Lizard, Arbor House and other publishers reprinted novels by Cornell Woolrich (“The Bride Wore Black”), Jim Thompson (“The Killer Inside Me”), Edward Anderson (“Thieves Like Us”), James M. Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”) and Horace McCoy (“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”).
More recently, the works of Dashiell Hammett, creator of the Continental Op, and Raymond Chandler, chronicler of Philip Marlowe, have both been enshrined in the stately Library of America. They are joined there this week by an omnibus of five David Goodis novels, including “Dark Passage” and “The Moon in the Gutter.”
It’s certainly appropriate that such fiction — as American as a Colt .45 — should be honored, read and studied. But the Library of America does tend to sanitize the look and feel of work that originally appeared in cheap magazines with leggy blondes or rumpled private eyes on the covers.
There’s no worry about that with this Centipede Press edition of Paul Cain’s complete works, consisting of the novel “Fast One,” published in 1933, and 15 short stories, including all those in the author’s only other book, the 1946 digest “Seven Slayers.” On the retro dust jacket of “The Complete Slayers,” artist Ron Lesser boldly highlights a dame dressed in nothing but her extremely well-filled underwear. She delicately fingers a cigarette-holder in one hand and a smoking gun in the other. So you might want to take off the dust jacket when you read this terrific book on the subway.
Paul Cain (1902-66) — no relation to James M. Cain — was the pen name for Hollywood screenwriter Peter Ruric, who was also known as George Ruric and who was born George Sims. What little is known about his life — largely as a Hollywood hack — isn’t really important, though editors Max Allan Collins and Lynn Myers Jr. provide a short account of his screenwriting career. What does matter is Cain’s lean, stripped-down prose, affectless narrative voice and killer stories, almost all of them for Black Mask magazine. No less an authority than Raymond Chandler described Cain’s style as “some kind of high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner.”
Near the end of one of the stories in “The Complete Slayers,” the protagonist is hustled into a car by some gangsters.
“When we got out of town a ways we went faster. It was very cold.
“I said: ‘Hurry up.’
“Neilan turned and grinned at me. I could see his face a little as we passed a street light. He said: ‘Hurry up — what?’
“ ‘Hurry up.’ The cold was beginning to get in to the pit of my stomach, and my legs. I wanted to be able to stand up. I wanted it standing up, if I could.”
Note how Cain doesn’t tell us that Red is going to be killed. There’s no need. For Red, what matters is that he meet his end properly, without breaking the tough-guy shell that defines his life. In another story, an important character’s death is described in as offhand a fashion as is imaginable: “There, after a little while, life went away from him.”
In general, Cain’s characters aren’t private eyes, though they are required to solve mysteries and piece together who murdered this guy or that. In “Black” the protagonist is an enforcer for a criminal syndicate. Many seem to be professional gamblers, laconic high-rollers who are as good with their fists as they are with a pair of dice.
In the novel “Fast One” — constructed out of five novelettes about the power struggles among some West Coast racketeers — the anti-hero Kells is utterly amoral; his dipsomaniacal girlfriend is known simply as Granquist (she has a tendency to curl up and fall asleep wherever she is). As William F. Nolan writes in his introduction to this dark masterpiece: “It chills the soul: You don’t read it, you survive it.”
That is more than most of its characters do. When “Fast One” first appeared, the New York Times attacked the novel as “a ceaseless welter of bloodshed and frenzy . . . a bedlam of killing and fiendishness.” The narrative’s point of view is nearly always external: People talk, actions are starkly described, no explanations are given, and we can only guess what Kells or other characters are thinking. The prose is similar to Hemingway’s, but even leaner. In the book’s opening section, Kells is beaten and kicked unconscious, then thrown into a locked room on a gambling ship. He escapes and goes looking for the money he’s owed:
“Swanstrom was sitting at the desk with his back to the door. Another man, a spare, thin-haired consumptive-looking man, was sitting on a chair on the platform, one of the .30-30s across his knees. He looked at Kells and he looked at the big blue revolver in Kells’ hand and he put the .30-30 down on the platform.”
Now and again, Cain injects the kind of wry humor or striking comparison we associate with Chandler: “Amante looked at me as if I’d betrayed him and all his family and then finished by stealing his rollerskates.” “Amante’s sneer was the kind people probably wear just before they get their throat cut by the sneeree.” A murdered man’s widow speaks with a voice “like little chunks of lead falling into a rainbarrel.” Another woman’s face “was as expressionless as a mop.”
Centipede Press is mainly known for its lavish editions of classics of science fiction, fantasy and horror. “The Complete Slayers” is, by Centipede’s usual standards, a relatively modest production (limited to just 500 copies). It features interior art throughout by Ron Lesser and a 13-page “cover gallery,” displaying small color reproductions of dozens of issues of Black Mask, as well as the various paperback editions of “Seven Slayers” and “Fast One.” Each Cain story, moreover, is prefaced with a short appreciation by a contemporary mystery writer. Bill Pronzini, Joe Gores, John Lutz, Edward D. Hoch and others duly sing the praises of Paul Cain.
Unfortunately, duty requires me to register a few complaints. Although Cain’s stories seem to have been set in type with reasonable care, the book’s table of contents includes an egregious misspelling in a title — “The Tasting Machine” appears as “The Tasting Maching” — and the editors’ introduction and afterword are both marred by sloppy writing, confusing punctuation, misprints and inattentive proofing (“and fathered several two sons”). This is a pity, given the handsomeness and obvious desirability of this edition of “The Complete Slayers.”
But let’s keep these caveats in perspective: There’s absolutely nothing to criticize about the knockout stories inside the book — or about that knockout blonde on its cover.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room.