Monday, November 26, 2007

By Paul Cain

Paul Cain is one of the least known hard-boiled writers of the ‘30s. While Hammett, Chandler, and Burnett achieved great success in the pulps and Hollywood, Cain remained obscure though he produced memorable work in both fields.

The classic hard-boiled hero is a PI, someone who stands partway between the law and the Underworld (to use a phrase coined by Race Williams, the original hard-boiled hero). But a PI is nonetheless a product of the legit world, essentially a free-lance policeman. Cain liked to bring his protagonists from the other side of the equation, he focussed on gangsters who acted like detectives. While the utter corruption of Poisonville in Red Harvest was an exception in Hammett’s writing, corruption is the basic norm of Cain’s stories. The cops and politicians are on the take from the crooks.

In “Black” the setting is a small town ruled by an alliance of bootleggers that is breaking apart. In one night the protagonist must get to the bottom of that disintegration for his own purposes. “Black” is a gangland thriller of double and triple crosses that reads a bit like a miniature of Fast One. A hallmark of Cain’s stories is a complex and shifting set of hidden, or half-hidden, alliances and enmities that confront his protagonists. By sifting each person’s true motivation, the truth emerges.

“Red 71” and “Parlor Trick” both employ underworld protagonists involved in murder. The need to reveal who committed murder may be just as strong as the need to conceal who else had a part in it in these twilight stories.

“Murder in Blue” and “One, Two, Three” feature somewhat more traditional PI protagonists. But the detective in “Murder in Blue” is a half-baked one, freelancing not so much because he believes in justice, but because he expects to make a name for himself.

The last two tales angle away from the world-weary cynicism of the other tales toward a world where white-knights might really ride to the rescue of the falsely accused. “Pigeon Blood” is perhaps the weakest of the set, with a decent hard-boiled whodunnit, but few big surprises. It’s a tale of scheming blue-bloods mixed up with degenerate hoods. The hero, known only as Druse, is less of a working PI, than a crime-fighting vigilante in a fedora. “Pineapple” takes up the notion of yellow-journalism and its role in demonizing outsiders. Again the hero is less a working PI than a vigilante who is determined to seek justice. It seems as if Cain was angling to create a justice-seeking PI who lived to bring in baddies, preferably in a popular series that would be highly salable to editors. If the editors didn’t bite, it’s a pity because success might have kept Cain writing his highly entertaining crime fiction.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

Man, I'm getting a lesson in noir fiction from coming here. This is another writer I've not even heard of.

I just finished reading Hammett's "Woman in the Dark" last night. It's a very forgettable plot but the writing is nice and it hooked me pretty good.

Dave Hardy said...

"Woman in the Dark" is OK for Hammett. The Continental Op stories are his bread and butter work. "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Glass Key" are the top-notch Hammett novels. "Nightmare Town" is a very good set on non-Continental Op short stories.

Cain's best story is "Fast One". I got a copy from the late, great Black Mask Online (which is back these days).