The Complete Slayers

by Paul Cain

This is going to be a lot of fun, even if it doesn’t work.

Fast One (novel)

Kells, a tough guy, gun-for-hire and one man army, is asked to enter into a partnership with a city crime boss in order to stave off rivals due to Kells’ heavy reputation. A bloodbath is touched off as different factions work against each other, forming temporarily alliances only to betray and murder each other in future dealings.

Granquist, the sultry, dangerous girlfriend of one of Kells’ rivals involves herself in the affair and after a few double-crosses ends up on Kells’ team. While the factions stand off against each other, swapping members, the law gets involved and it’s only a matter of time until everything comes crashing down.

The author uses such short, static, simple sentences you get a Hemingway impression, but the tone is often so bleak that noir is an understatement for the novel:

The little man glanced at the paper and looked at Kells. He said: ‘Nuts.’ He grinned at Kells, and then his face tightened and he died.

The novel’s also got all the wit that saturated noir and helped make it so famous in the first place:

“Have I told you the story of my life?”
“No—but I’ve heard one.”

There are probably 20 more quotes that need to be mentioned here, but to try and keep the review short perhaps just one more. You know, so you can cement the idea the author’s not screwing around:

“I work pretty fast, Gus. I’ll bet you can shoot me through the heart an’ I’ll have my gun out an’ have a couple slugs in your belly before I hit the floor.” He smiled a little. “Let’s try it.”

Written in 5 serial installments and originally published in 1933, here’s what you get when you riddle a novel with bullets, hard boil it, use it as a murder weapon, boil it again, then eat it and chase it with a bottle of whiskey.

4+ (5-) stars

As far as the 15 short stories go, the concentration of incredible is in the first half. With “Black” through “Hunch,” nearly every single story is a bullet aimed to blow you away. But don’t think that means the second half isn’t good. They’re all good, and there’s one in the second half, “Death Song,” that’s nearly perfect. Also, the final story of the collection is a huge departure from crime, instead offering up an excellent speculative fiction tale that’s part fantasy and part horror.

A full story breakdown is included as an attachment below, but here are a few comments on the best of the bunch:

“Parlor Trick” – A man gets called to a beautiful woman’s apartment where he finds her, an extremely drunk Gus, who’s confessing to murder, and a corpse with a knife sticking from the throat. Our narrator convinces Gus and Bella he needs to call Neilan, who we think is a cop but turns out to be something else, and Neilan and company get to the truth. Then they take a ride.

This story may be the best at quickly, in just six or seven pages, explaining what this particular hardest-of-the-hard-boiled writing is really talking about. When you’re facing your own death, likely by gunshot, and you plainly tell your captors to ‘hurry up,’ you’re a hard man indeed. You’ve passed the point of being human and you’re just rock, capable of smashing the world and pretty much indifferent if it smashes you. Those ‘hard-boiled’ detectives are a bunch of pansies.

“Parlor Trick” was a short, twisty, riveting story. Consider yourself defied to peel your eyes away or stop thinking about it afterward.

He was standing at the basin with his back to the door and when he turned his head to look at me his face was awful. His skin was damp and gray and his eyes had something leaden and dying in them.

“Red ’71” – Shane is tough as nails and world-wise, and gets mixed up in the murder of the husband/significant other of a female friend of his after the two of them have an argument over her. Shane’s innocent but sly, and has a good idea of what’s really going on, and as the story unfolds we’re given a glance of a world where everyone’s cheating everyone, everyone’s guilty of something.

This was another incredible story, complex and satisfying. The relationships are tough to pin down, but the world is so seedy anything else wouldn’t fit properly. This story is another fine example of why Paul Cain has the reputation of the hardest of the hard.

“One, Two, Three” – Our narrator, fixer, tough-guy, gets involved with the murder of an associate’s wife. Only he has two wives, and the first is entangling herself in the situation. As the men fumble around the case and the police leap to the wrong conclusions, those left standing have to figure out who’s behind the murders.

With this hard, fast, and surprisingly funny story, the author’s style finally began to gel into something that’s not just worthy of real appreciation, but admiration and even awe.

I couldn’t figure out how a wife could blackmail a husband while she was jumping from state to state with a man who was “supposed” to be her brother, but then almost anything is possible in Nevada.

“Murder Done in Blue” – Multiple murders pop off to start the story, and Doolie figures out they’re probably connected and how. Puts together a list, and decides there’s one name on it in much more danger than the others, and approaches the man to offer his services as bodyguard.

This one twists and turns, as is to be expected, ending both differently than expected and with a sense of inevitability. It’s also a fabulous study in nihilism, and the reasons it exists in the first place.

You’re my bodyguard and your salary is five hundred a week, but your job isn’t to guard me–it’s to see that there’s plenty of excitement.

“Pigeon Blood” – A woman is driving and is shot off the road by unnamed attackers. Her husband fills our main character in on his wife’s gambling problem and the circumstances of her attack as he sees them and hires him to protect her and recover $175,000 worth of rubies that were stolen.

Another screamer of a story, this one a little more straightforward than the earlier tales, but instead of a general fixer or tough-guy protagonist this one plays out more like a traditional detective story.

He went to the buffet and took out a squat bottle, glasses, poured two big drinks. He took one to her, raised the other and squinted through it at the light. “Here’s to crime.”
They drank.

“Hunch” – Brennan, a news reporter, stumbles across an old friend and learns there’s a body in her room. The dead woman was the girlfriend of a local gangster, released from prison that morning. But Brennan has a hunch the gangster wasn’t responsible for the killing and the murderer was the lowlife club owner who’d been sleeping with the girl, and bets his job he’s right as he seeks to unravel the truth.

Here’s another story that doesn’t so much twist and turn as jut off at different angles throughout. Our protagonist is once again a tough guy, though everyone in this story represents hard characters. Alcohol seems featured, and it’s not only a relaxant and a pastime but a medicine, being employed for just about everything. Feeling down? Have a drink. Got a job to do and need to focus? Have a drink. Been beaten to a pulp? Have a drink. While alcohol really is a mainstay in noir fiction this one seems to up the ante a bit, almost as a background player but a key one, replacing cigarettes. Importantly, the story stays true to noir roots, making sure its heroes are never squeaky clean despite what they tell themselves.

“Listen, Johnnie–have we ever gone very far wrong playing my hunched?”
“They’ll be a first time.”

“Death Song” – On the set the film has fallen hopelessly behind schedule as the female lead is constantly drunk and refusing to show up anywhere near the call time. Our protagonist is tasked with helping everyone get along when things get rough, but when the lead actress is found murdered and accusations are flying he’s got his work cut out for him.

This should probably have been among the original Slayers tales, making it Eight Slayers instead of Seven. It doesn’t quite fit because of the movie producing angle, but this was a damned-fine, complicated noir story with a healthy dose of humor.

I looked back at the window and the rifle barrel was gone. I said: “Do you gentlemen mind if I put on my pants?”

“The Tasting Machine” – In a bizarre break from crime stories, this one is both fantasy and horror as a restaurant owner, so successful and rich from his business that he only cooks once every few months, is approached by a stranger. The cook’s younger years had destroyed his body, including his ability to taste, and the stranger offered him a machine that would do it for him but for a terrible price.

This one’s an oddity in the book, though an excellent story. It makes one wonder what would have happened if the author had pursued speculative fiction instead of crime fiction, because it not only hints at the beginnings of mastery of the genre, but also offers between the lines some human insights that make the genre so important in the first place.

full story list

So there you have it. It’s a long review, so apologies for that, but when there’s so much good material that needs to be addressed it can’t be avoided. The video review will go over a few specifics of Centipede’s edition, but for story content alone book now sits atop a massive heap of formal rivals.

Cobalt steel themes are often repeated throughout, such as a distrust of police authority and competency, often borne out by our protagonist providing key evidence or action that saves victims from being railroaded by the system. The men are hard as stone and the sarcasm doesn’t drip, it explodes, needle-sharp. The women are ice and fire and danger, whipping the men into frenzies and running off with the spoils. And it all happens with an economy of text that it’s incredibly easy to miss important pieces, just because we’re not used to major, pivotal points coming in five word sentences. The best way to read this author is to slow your normal speed to somewhere around half. If you normally read a page a minute, it should take closer to two with this guy. Things come so fast, the language is so pared down, just don’t even bother trying to move at your normal clip.

(Hard boiled crime fiction is a new hobby of mine, with an emphasis on the old masters. And there’s no mistaking it, Paul Cain belongs with them. The Complete Slayers (or The Paul Cain Omnibus if you read the e-book) now counts as one of the greatest collections I’ve ever read, and THE greatest collection of crime fiction I’ve come across yet. There’s a long way to go, but this is going to be extremely hard to beat, even for established giants of the genre.)

There is no way to recommend the book highly enough; you’ll just have to discover it for yourselves. So go get it, along with a bottle of scotch and a .38 special.

I can take trouble or leave it alone; only I always take it.

5 stars

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