Monday, January 27, 2014

Ultimate noir: The Paul Cain Omnibus

Just after finishing The Paul Cain Omnibus (edited by keith Alan Deutsch and published by Mysterious Press), I picked up a copy of the original text (before substantial alterations at the galley stage) of Faulkner's Sanctuary. It's interesting to see how two very different writers deal with the conventions of noir, each taking the genre to its limits. Sanctuary is a bit earlier than the Cain stories and his novel Fast One, but these are very much stories of the era of the formation of noir, the '20s and '30s. Faulkner disassembles pulp noir and reassembles the parts into an extravagant and dark novel of interiority, with the plot (of which there is a lot, by Faulknerian standards) mostly in the background.

Cain, on the other hand, is all about exteriority and plot. Instead of taking apart the conventions of the genre, he refined them down to their essence and applied his signature method: speed. The novel is a Fast One, indeed, with not even time for a definite or indefinite article in the title. I knew the novel already, but this collection adds several layers to Cain's career, including a useful introduction to the author and his work by Boris Dralyuk, all the noir stories, most of which were published in the classic Black Mask magazine (plus one that's a bit lighter that was published in Gourmet), and in addition, the original stories that were collected and edited to become Fast One (though Cain didn't edit as much as Faulkner for the final version, it's still interesting to see how he tightened an already tense tale into the uncoiling spring of the final text.

Of the other stories, there are some that don't hold up (including one that is barely more than a racist joke) but most of them are vivid glimpses of a hard era and the hard folks that lived there. Therr are a few cops, but it's mostly reporters, grifters, and people just trying to get by. The characters often have colors for names (Black and Red, for example), which suggests that Quentin Tarantino may have been reading Cain before he made Reservoir Dogs, but it's clear that Cain isn't aiming for style: he's naming his characters with short titles that don't suggest any backstory, they're just names. A few of the stories are funny (particularly one dealing with the film business, in which Cain also worked under other names), some contain racist and sexist language as well as violence against women that is aggressive enough to raise the issue of misogyny--but there are also a number of strong and sympathetic female characters.

All in all, the Cain Omnibus is a lively portrait of an era as well as a shining example of the basic elements of noir without any fluff or compromise. Plus they're crackling stories that move ahead so rapidly that any one of these brief stories has enough going on to fill out a movie version (and the exteriority of the telling plus the speed of the plots suggests film writing--but they're clearly products of the pulp magazine era (even Fast One) and as much as they reflect the standards and language of noir, they also hark back to a specific era of publishing and reading. It's a very interesting collection, for anyone interested in the history of crime fiction as well as anyone who appreciates stripped-down storytelling.

1 comment:

Peter Rozovsky said...

I've long thought that Fast One is the closes thing to The Glass that the pulp era gave us. Cain wasn't Hammett--no one but Hammett was that--but how many other crime writers of the early '30s read as if they could have been writing in the '6os pr '70s?