Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Book: Fast One, by Paul Cain (1933)

Clearly the universe is urging me forward in my quest to read the novelistic equivalents of the twenty-minute egg. Fast One had been on my radar for some time. I finally acquire a copy only weeks after finishing Richard Rayner’s A Bright and Guilty Place, which lays bare the miasma of Los Angeles vice that inspired Paul Cain; all Cain did was change the names. Then I pick up Max Décharné’s book to learn that Raymond Chandler called Fast One “some kind of a high point in the ultra hardboiled manner.” Décharné, naming Ted Lewis’ Jack’s Return Home (filmed as Get Carter) a spiritual descendant, dubs Fast One a “masterpiece ... another nihilistic train-wreck of a book where virtually every character comes to a bad end.”

Believe me, those two are not kidding.

Fast One is the story of Gerry Kells, an East Coast gambler ensconced in L.A. Local kingpin Jack Rose, seeing a gang war coming, wants Kells on his side. Kells is content to stay neutral, so Rose frames him for murder. Kells then decides to seize control of the city’s rackets himself. The only problems are Rose, L.A.’s other crooks, some interested out-of-town players, the deeply bent police department, the equally suspect power structure, a woman he can’t trust, and his own appetites. And he still damn near pulls it off.

Originally serialized in Black Mask, Fast One is terse almost to the point of incomprehensibility; Cain not only omits needless words, he skimps on a few of the useful ones as well. I had to turn back a few pages on a regular basis. That didn’t diminish the blazing speed with which the book moved, and the fever dream of corruption that it creates. Fast One may not be a good book, but it is a singular one, and it deserves its reputation.

Cain was born George Carrol Sims but called himself Peter Ruric when he worked as a screenwriter. He had an affair with actress Gertrude Michael, a Chez K favorite, basing the character of the duplicitous and dipsomaniacal Miss Granquist on her. Knowing that only enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

Update: The Rap Sheet paired this post in its Friday’s Forgotten Books round-up along with another take on Fast One from Evan Lewis at Davy Crockett’s Almanack. More good information over there.