Black Mask Library

Paul Cain's Fast One: An Afterword

[This afterword is set to appear in a new collection
of Paul Cain’s work, The Paul Cain Omnibus,
due out soon from]

By Keith Alan Deutsch

Black Mask

The novel Fast One was originally serialized in Black Mask Magazine in five episodes between March 1932 and September 1932. These five related tales attracted intense comment by both Black Mask Magazine readers, and by itswriters, all of whom recognized that these stories represented a kind of culmination of the hardboiled style upon which Black Mask’s fame rested.

          In the years following the serialization of Fast One, especially in the wake of comments by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the literary masters of the Black Mask narrative, Paul Cain’s achievement became recognized as something more than merely the toughest, most compact, and visceral example of Black Mask story-telling.

          None of Cain’s contemporaries, however, was able to explain very specifically why Fast One cast such memorable power as a crime story narrative. Looking back after eighty years of refinement in the formulas of American popular entertainment, especially those tales of the rise of urban crime initiated by Black Mask writers, we can now see that Cain’s attitude, and the attitude of the protagonist couple who navigate all the corrupting forces of action in Fast One, foreshadow the detached, poised, and disengaged, self-reliant persona that has emerged in twentieth century American film, song, and popular fiction as the essential American hero, who faces death and corruption with poise in a morally compromised American society.

          Fast One is one of the first American novels in which the anti-hero exists on the edge of annihilation merely for the gamble and joy of living to the fullest in the present moment while all around him lesser characters lead lives of desperate greed and corrupt plotting. Though Cain’s novel has no moral center, and though all its characters are flawed, Cain’s anti-hero Kells is never greedy for personal, material gain, or for political power.

          What the Black Mask crime story tradition had already established in American writing when Cain debuted with the first installment of Fast One was the violently corrupted urban landscape of major American cities under siege from many different outlaw forces of political and commercial crime.

          What Cain brought to this tradition with Fast One, and his other Black Mask tales, was a varied array of heroes and anti-heroes from hard-boiled detectives, stunt-men, and Hollywood studio trouble-shooters to grifters, goniffs, reporters, and even to an elegant retired judge who all exhibited a kind of amoral gambler’s grace in the face of the constant threat of moral and physical annihilation.

          This disengaged, existential Cain hero is not a Carrol John Daly vigilante, nor a complex professional Dashiell Hammett lawman, nor an elegantly voiced Raymond Chandler romantic.  These classic Black Mask models for hard-boiled heroes no longer easily serve today’s entertainments.

          Perhaps the amoral vision that Cain presents in the casual death defying behavior of his protagonists is the reason that some readers, and some critics, still find Cain’s crime writing disturbing.  Perhaps not, since it is just this behavior, and thinking, that made the “deranged” and suicidal L.A.P.D. SergeantRiggs, the lethal weapon of the eponymous 1987 film so appealing to a huge, contemporary audience.

          That Cain could have entered crime writing  “on his feet running" with his first published work is a stunning achievement.  That Cain immediately drew a kind of hushed and startled reaction from the then current Black Mask masters is even more amazing.

          The fact that both Fast One and Seven Slayers, a selection of Cain’s Black Mask tales, have always been in print since their first publication (often in pirated editions of which there are more for Cain than any other Black Mask author), and that even now so many years after its initial publication, Fast One remains an anomaly in tone and structure, and a disturbing mystery to many professional writers and devoted fans of detective fiction, is the best tribute to Cain's enduring achievement.

          While the classic hard-boiled mannerisms and rituals developed in Black Mask between the 1920s and 1940s have become so familiar that contemporary practitioners who wish to write in the hard-boiled tradition must struggle to avoid clichés and dated visions of nobility and morality, Cain used the forms and devices of the Black Mask school to create a work that remains forever modern (or postmodern) and – for many readers – a foreboding work that leaves the audience uncomfortable in the its unflinching look at the edge of morality, and over that edge into the abyss of oblivion.

          The unromantic, startling ending to Fast One remains a problem for readers and critics who cannot accept and face the unknown in all gambles, nor accept the certainty that all bets end with death.

          Those readers who have no sense of the gamble will always find something to be disturbed by in Cain’s writing. Gambling is the essential, recurring theme in Cain’s crime fiction, and the key to the central character’s motivation, and appeal in the novel, Fast One. 

          Kells’ role as a gambler in Fast One determines how he operates as an existential anti-hero. He, and his companion Cain protagonists take their chances simply because that is how they live, how they feel alive.  Near the beginning of the novel, Kells refuses a five percent piece of a gang leader’s action, just as he will refuse all offers that require his allegiance to any group, on either side of the law:

Kells had straightened up. He was examining the nail of his left index finger. “I came out here five months ago with two grand and I’ve given it a pretty good ride. I’ve got a nice little joint at the Lancaster, with a built-in bar; and a pretty fair harem, and I’ve got several thousand friends in the bank. It’s a lot more fun guessing the name of a pony than guessing what the name of the next stranger I’m supposed to have shot will be. I’m having a lot of fun. I don’t want any part of anything.”

          Risk-taking is an elemental part of Kells' identity, and part of the reason he and similar Cain protagonists are probably the first anti-heroes in American detective fiction, possibly in American popular entertainment.  Cain’s anti-heroes are not driven by money, ideology, or even the professional self-respect of Hammett’s protagonists – and certainly not by morality.  Kells and his fictive brethren are all amoral. But their amorality is so much cleaner and more appealing than all the greedy grasping of the criminal types that surround them.

          Cain’s anti-heroes also appeal because this existential attitude frees them from so many societal constraints. Cain's anti-heroes are all on the go, as if to slow down might drown them.  They are breathless like Goddard's hoodlum anti-hero, but also beyond fear like Sergeant Riggs, the lethal weapon.

          We recognize Kells in so many of today’s anti-hero's, from Samurai swordsmen and government snipers to criminal hit men, Western gamblers, space jockey alien hunters, and of course, all the deadly, rogue cops of popular entertainment.  Cain captured, for the first time, an amoral attitude that is now so pervasive it is almost invisible.

          Although Cain uses recurrent devices, and protagonist types, he also presents more diversity in characters, and narration than most critics have observed.  Cain tells tales in the first person and the third person. His trouble-shooters, stunt men, and criminal types are offset by the more refined Druse, the retired judge, of Pigeon Blood.  Cain is comfortable depicting any segment of American society; his fearlessly disengaged protagonists can emerge from any class, but will always live on the edge of disaster and temptation, racing from one thrilling episode to the next with a kind of amoral grace.

          Cain’s existential hero, the Fast One, possesses a unique purity of purpose that separates him from all the lesser characters of the novel or story in which he appears.  After more than eighty years of experimentation in American popular entertainments, Cain’s invention remains an enduringly attractive model for today’s American action hero.


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