Hardboiled Monday: Fast One

fastoneAs with preceding Hardboiled Mondays, Chris Hocking and I are working our way down the master list in alphabetical order. Details and the list are here. And earlier discussions are here.

I remain disappointed that there was so little interest voiced about the Howard Browne book from last week. As far as I’m concerned, that’s one of the finest books on the entire list, but I think we got more FB Likes and comments on that silly Spam Haiku post on Wednesday. If you somehow missed our discussion on The Taste of Ashes, take a look. And if you like this stuff, by God, order a copy of the complete Paul Pine detective stories from Stephen Haffner. Just trust me on this one.

Today we’re looking at Fast One, by Paul Cain.

BM-0332This WAS a fast one. A blizzard of events swirls the central character, Kells, into a series of political and criminal machinations. He then does his best to twist things to his own advantage. The only problem is that he may not know when to stop, and he has this nagging character flaw for a criminal mastermind – he’s loyal to his friends. This novel is terse, brutal, powerful, unforgettable.

Chris: In the indispensable review collection 1001 Midnights, Bill Pronzini wrote that by the time this Black Mask classic comes to its relentless conclusion the reader can feel a sort of “breathless despair,” and this strikes me as weirdly accurate.  Commonly considered a benchmark in the ultra-hardboiled, terse style made famous by Hammett, Fast One is stripped-down, sharp and merciless as a stiletto.  The narrative hurtles along through all manner of gritty, eminently believable scenes of Depression-era lawlessness with such clipped speed that the reader cannot lose focus on the page for a second for fear of missing something.  It’s exhausting, an example of style taken close to its limit, but it is a novel that, once read, is never forgotten.

Howard: Didn’t you tell me that Hammett had called it the North Pole of hardboiled — that you couldn’t make something any more terse and still decipher what was going on? And yet, oddly enough, I found myself more attached to Kells than I’ve so far been to Hammet’s heroes –either Spade or the Continental Op. Despite the fact he’s a criminal, there’s a certain warmth to Kells. How does the rest of Cain stand up to this lone book?

Chris: Chandler described Fast One as “some kind of high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner.”  I can’t recall who said the novel was the North Pole of hardboiled writing, meaning that once you got to the North Pole you simply couldn’t go any farther North, that the book took that style just about as far as it was possible to go.
Cain’s short stories are excellent and there are only a handful of them.  Sharp, cold little things that reward re-reading.

Here’s a link to a book collecting all of Paul Cain’s stories from the great Black Mask magazine.


12 Comments on “Hardboiled Monday: Fast One

  1. I haven’t had a chance to read the Browne novels, although I have ordered them from Haffner Press. For that reason, I didn’t contribute to the discussion. I haven’t read this one yet, either.

    Which Chandler will you be reading? I’ve got all of them, so I can get started in the next few days. (I think.)

    • Hey Keith! Glad the Browne discussion caught your interest. I hoped it might.

      Well, it was Farewell, My Lovely that I thought was the very best, but in Chandler’s case the article we’re drafting so far is lightly touching on all of the books. I’d be happy to talk about any of ’em, but I truly thought his second novel was the greatest, although the next two (High Window and The Lady in the Lake) are close seconds. Chandler is top notch.

  2. The end of Fast One is tough. I agree with you, Howard, there’s a real warmth to Keller. It comes out in his loyalty and concern for his friends. As to his stripped down and nitrous fueled style, only Ellroy’s White Jazz is the only thing I’ve read that outdoes it.

    • I haven’t read White Jazz. That’s a heckuva endorsement. Does White Jazz hold up to it character and story wise as well?

      • It’s been some time but I think so.To cut his manuscript he went in and excised something from almost every sentence. It also helped mimic the thoughts of its hophead narrator. Being Ellroy, the plot is insanely complex and often very disturbing. If ever there were books that merited trigger warnings it would be Ellroy’s books and you’d need to cover them in loud, flashing police sirens.

  3. White Jazz isn’t the Ellroy you want to start with. There are storylines concluded in that book that started in some of the earlier ones. It’s been years for me as well since I read Ellroy. The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, and L. A Confidential are great books, but like Fletcher said, they can be disturbing and probably should come with trigger warnings. Ellroy doesn’t shy away from shocking material and isn’t for the faint of heart. I doubt any film version could do justice to his books. As good as the film version of L. A. Confidential was, it left out so much of the book.

  4. Keith, thanks for the clarification on that.

    I’m not sure what either of you mean by trigger warnings — I’m not familiar with that expression. I take it that they’re brutally violent or something?

  5. Trigger warning’s a hip, newish term to let people know something they’re about to read might upset them.

    As to Ellroy, on a violence-ometer scale of 1-10 his books run non-stop at about a 25 or so. Also, as he was critiquing post-war America it’s filled with casual police brutality and racism. It’s bloody, raw stuff.

    But enough about him. I just bought Seven Slayers by Cain and am really looking forward to reading it.

    • Ellroy doesn’t shy away from any type of graphic content.

      I don’t think I’ve read Cain at all. He sounds like someone I will enjoy.

  6. At one point, I had read almost everything that James Ellroy had written. He is an excellent writer. He’s also incredibly dark. I finally had to stop reading his stuff because it was just too much for me.

    Having said that, I started with ‘LA Confidential’ and was glad I did. It is an excellent book (and film).

    If you’re up for it, Ellroy’s autobiography, ‘My Dark Places’ is aptly titled.

    • LA Confidential was my introduction to Ellroy. I had enjoyed the movie version and decided to give the book a try. I was blown away by the differences and went on to read all four of that quartet. The English teacher at the small private school where I taught at the time was reading them as well, and we had some great discussions.

      Eventually the content and his stream of consciousness style got to be too much for me, and I didn’t read anything after White Jazz. I’m tempted to give his new quartet set in 1940s LA a try. Apparently a young version of Dudley Smith will be in those books.

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