12 February 2008

Grab a Fast One

I would like to announce, with some reservations, that one of the classic noir/hard-boiled novels of all time is back in print. Fast One by Paul Cain is a masterpiece of the classic era pulps, well-known to aficianados but not to the general public. That’s not a shame, actually. I don’t know what the general public would make of a book like this, and I don’t think their opinion of it would be pretty. Fast One is so insanely paced that it’s almost dadaist. A blurb advertising it in the back of a U.K. printing of another obscure noir novel describes it this way: “The pace is incredible and the complex plot, with its twists and turns, defies summary.” Which itself is great summary. If I wanted to make a stab at a description, I would mention a massive gang war across Los Angeles, and a fella named Kells at the front lines of it all. People die. Boatloads of them. Characters dash across the city spraying bullets in a sparse prose style that makes you wonder if life has any meaning whatsoever and will also make you swear off coffee and those “energy drinks” forever. If you just put down a Henry James novel before you started reading Fast One, you’d get your neck snapped. Even if you just read an Elmore Leonard thriller, Fast One would still give you whiplash. No exaggeration, this is the fastest moving novel I’ve read in my life.

Yes the plot is labyrinthine, but it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to “get” what is going on, because I don’t think Paul Cain got it either. He simply slammed his fingers over the typewriter keys, making sure somebody died in a hail of machine gun bullets every other sentence, and waited to see how it would turn out. If the book had a motto, it would be: “Let’s kill ‘em all, and since there’s no god, nothin’ will get sorted out.”

The bitter cherry on top of all this is that Paul Cain is a ghost. A phantom. He wrote this one novel and seven short stories. His real name was George Carroll Syms. Or maybe it was George Sims. He also wrote as Peter Ruric. He might have been born in 1902. There’s not much else to say about him; most sources I’ve come across mention he married a couple of times and dated actress Gertrude Michael.

The novel originally ran serially in Black Mask, the most famous of the detective pulps, in 1931–1932. It has sporadically appeared in book form ever since, materializing long enough to get its reputation restarted among pulp fans, then vanishing into collector lore. My copy is the excellent 1994 Vintage Crime printing. The current print version available comes from BlackMask.com, a division of Munsey’s. I mentioned at the beginning of this entry that I have some reservations about this: I’m thrilled that I can now recommend this novel to other pulp fans and tell them where to get it, but from what I’ve gleaned online, this version has some serious typographic errors. This is the unfortunate price we pay for the small presses who heroically make available older work that the big houses will no longer touch.

If Fast One sounds like your cup of amphetamine-laced java, here’s my recommendation: If you spot a used copy of the Vintage Crime edition, grab it. Otherwise, pick up the new version and caveat emptor, caveat lector. Actually, no matter which version you get, caveat lector: as I’ve said, this a book that could do some damage to your neck.