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Kells said: “I’ll bet I can shoot faster than you, Adenoids.” O’Donnell didn’t say anything. His pale eyes glittered in a sick face and the big automatic was glistening and steady in his fat pink hand.

Fenner leaned forward, put his head against the wall. Beery turned slowly and looked at Kells. The Mexican was motionless, bright-eyed.

Then Beery said, “Look out!” and something dull and terrible crashed against the back of Kells’ head, there was a dull and terrible blackness. It was filled with thunder and smothering blue; something hot and alive pulsed in Kells’ hand. He fell.

If you read enough about ’30s hardboiled literature, sooner or later you’ll stumble across the name Paul Cain. Cain has gained a legendary reputation as the pinnacle of the ultra-hardboiled, thanks in part due to some commentary by master Raymond Chandler—see the book cover below—an acknowledgement which is nothing to sneeze at. Finding his name is easy; finding his works is a bit harder due to the passage of time and Cain’s mysterious background. “Paul Cain” was a pen name used by George Carol Sims for his pulp output; he also used the name “Peter Ruric” for his screenplays, the most famous being The Black Cat with Boris Karloff.

His seventeen hardboiled novelettes appeared in the famous Black Mask detective magazine in the early 1930s; seven found a home in the anthology Seven Slayers, while five of them featuring the recurring protagonist Gerard Kells were collected into the fixup novel Fast One. Since the mid-’30s, these two books have been in and out of publication several times, never for very long, making them collectibles for the crime-noir crowd. We in the 21st Century have lucked out with new paperbacks—and ebook editions—from No Exit Press and Black Mask Online. And Centipede Press just release all of Cain’s work—including parts not found in Seven Slayers or Fast One—in one deluxe hardbound volume.

2012 – Black Mask – design by Goodloe Byron.

Sometimes gambler, sometimes gunman Gerry Kells only wanted to be left alone. He had friends on both sides of the political spectrum, two warring factions whose underworld ties made Kells a valuable asset. It was only logical for him to turn down Jack Rose’s offer to side against rival Lee Fenner. But Rose decided Kells was a threat, and now he’s after him. After a double-cross by Fenner, Kells decides to force Fenner out and claim his side of the underworld—and with that, all of Los Angeles. Kells also has to deal with Granquist, a beautiful femme fatale with information on one of Rose’s main supporters—and some secret agendas of her own. Throw into the mix a motley mob of gunmen and hoods as unsavory as the year is long, resulting in cut-throat alliances that don’t last a day, and a never-ending stream of explosive violence.

Avon 178 – 1948 – artist unknown.

I don’t often get confused by a book, but Fast One was a notable exception, causing me to wonder “What the hell is going on?” and backtrack until I’d acclimated to the prose. Cain drops you into a story without explanation or exposition; its sense of immediacy and rapid-fire style demands the reader pay attention and make leaps of faith. There is no exposition, no explanation of who these people are or why they’re doing something—it’s a world where relationships, thoughts, background is never explained. It’s all action, terse rapid action and snappy, slang-y dialogue. That makes for choppy, confusing reading.

It’s also well done, in its own perverse way; it throws the reader off-balance, but it’s done in a catchy style that I couldn’t stop reading. The writing is slick, and I get the feeling Cain did it intentionally, cutting out not just the unnecessary words but some necessary ones, too, crafting the epitome of the hardboiled novel and nothing else. Hence why readers might feel that the book’s confusing or that it’s weak on characterization: everything is marginalized to support nothing but action, dialogue, action, and dialogue. The slang-ridden dialogue has a strength and authenticity that’s missing in most other hardboiled novels. And there’s plenty of explanations and character development to be found… it’s buried beneath the surface, waiting for intense reader scrutiny.

Also, keeping notes of the characters will be helpful if you’re not going to read it all in one session, but don’t bother making them too detailed since most of the characters bite it. Fast One is not kind on its characters, and even when they survive—which is rare—they’re often trod down, beaten, broken, used. It takes the old writing mantra of “kill your darlings” to the next level. There’s an overblown fascination with describing streets and the routes people took, something I’d thought was a Californian trait only occurring in Saturday Night Live sketches. And while I’m criticizing the book again, the 2012 Black Mask paperback is rife with grammatical errors, which grew irksome. I can tell they ran a spellcheck but didn’t proof it very well, since it’s either missing punctuation, or converting “to” into “Jo” and “Janis” into “Jams” and suchwise.

Avon 496 – 1952 – artist unknown.

In a review, Brian Cain compared Fast One to a brain freeze from eating too much ice cream; that’s more accurate than how I was going to put it. This book gives you a headache, but if you stop, it’ll turn from tasty freeze to mush, so you soldier on. This is a story of complex brevity, where the reader must pay close attention and decipher the plot’s nuances along with the characters, a neat trick when the plot starts off sucker-punching you at Mach Two and doesn’t relent. There’s not much character development, or mystery: it’s all about plot. And that plot is fast death: action and dialogue and more action, with another scoop of action, and some more dialogue. You’ll be paying too much attention to this labyrinth of lies, deceit, double-crosses, and murders, waiting to see how it pans out, to care about anything else. The style of this narrative is unique in pulp fiction; society wasn’t ready for Fast One back in the 1930s. I’m unsure society’s ready for it now.

It’s not for everyone, and will even disappoint the most extreme hardboiled fanatics; this novel is a jumbled trainwreck, both in plot and in pacing. And while it’s not the greatest hardboiled story it’s purported to be, it is a great book worthy of its legendary reputation. Paul Cain hit a masterful blend: the ruthless severity of a rabid dog, pacing that outstrips a speeding bullet, and prose that causes papercuts from its honed edge. Fast One is a novel of such rapid, frenetic intensity that it burns like a fire: the beauty of flame is offset by its blistering heat. Jump into the novel unprepared and you will get burned… if you can stay in long enough.

Centipede Press – 2012 – Ron Lesser. A beautiful dustjacket spread for a highly collectible, limited-print-run, signed-and-numbered volume.