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Cain, Paul

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George Sims (1902-1966) wrote American hard-boiled PI stories under the name Paul Cain and screenplays as Peter Ruric.


Mike Grost on Paul Cain


Paul Cain wrote two stories about wiseguy detective Black, "Black" (1932), and "Trouble-Chaser" (1934). Black is his last name; he is not given any first name in the stories, just like the heroine of his novel Fast One (1932). They show many signs of influence from Dashiell Hammett. The complex roundelay of the characters and their relationships in a story like "Black" (1932) recall such intricate Hammett tales as "Fly Paper" (1929). Their is the same effect of coming at the mystery plot at such off angles that the reader is constantly kept off balance. The influence is especially strong in the matter of prose style. There is the spare, dispassionate tone, which narrates events in a flat, unemotional manner. The detective is consciously emotionally distanced from everyone around him, just as in Hammett. His detective Black gets involved in gang disputes in "Black", and plays both sides against each other, just like the Continental Op in Red Harvest. He is similarly manipulative of everyone around him, often for benign ends, in "Trouble-Chaser". He is arrogantly sure he knows what's best for everybody in that tale. Also, like Sam Spade in Hammett's 1932 stories, in "Trouble-Chaser" he is depicted as liking to read, and is quietly proud of his ability to absorb high brow culture, a skill treated in both writers as a sign of mastery.


However, Cain's plotting style in the Black stories is different from Hammett's classical puzzle plots. Instead, Cain follows his own version of the "pulp style of plotting", wherein so many different groups are involved in a series of crimes that it is hard for the detective to figure out who did what. The plot of "Black" is especially well designed, with a beautiful, complex use of symmetry. The "pulp style of plotting" is very common in Black Mask, apparently starting with Carroll John Daly, and continuing with Erle Stanley Gardner, and other Black Mask writers. It was used infrequently, if at all, by Hammett.


I did not like Cain's only novel, Fast One (1932), as much as his short stories. The novel suffers from a lack of plot, and slow pace. However, it does have an unusual tone, with a sardonic look at its hard-boiled crook protagonist. The "feel" and atmosphere of the story are more memorable than any concrete plot events in it.


Cain also worked as a Hollywood scriptwriter, under his pseudonym Peter Ruric. The Black Cat (1934) is a famous horror thriller, discussed in the article on its director, Edgar G. Ulmer. Grand Central Murders (1942) does not seem to be a very personal work for Cain. It has a complex flashback structure, perhaps influenced by Orson Welles' ''Citizen Kane (1941). By contrast, Twelve Crowded Hours (1939, directed by Lew Landers) shows something of the feel of Cain's prose fiction. It takes place in a fairly hard-boiled world, in which reporters, police, and racketeers keep encountering each other, throughout the course of a single night. So do a framed suspect and his innocent sister. The film is intricately plotted. It involves a complex web of relationships among the characters. The film is not a whodunit. Instead, it has to be classed as a gangster film, although the lead characters are a non-crooked reporter and the decent sister of an accused criminal. The reporter hero here recalls the novelist hero of The Black Cat'', although he is much tougher and more working class. The crooked characters are all involved in New York City's numbers racket, and recall the racketeers in Cain's prose fiction. The film's complex plot consists of a series of schemes and counter-schemes. First one character will develop some scheme, then another character will interfere with the scheme in an ingenious way, producing a different effect. Such a plotting approach recalls some of the crook stories of Erle Stanley Gardner.




Fast One (1933)

Seven Slayers (1946)

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