PAUL CAIN “One, Two, Three.” Short story. First published in Black Mask, May 1933. Collected in Seven Slayers (Saint Enterprises, paperback, 1946). Reprinted in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime, softcover, November 2007).

   Paul Cain wrote only one novel (Fast One) and less than two dozen short stories, most of them for Black Mask, but that’s all it took to make him a legend in our time, if not his own. He was the ultimate in hard-boiled fiction, terse and unemotional as fiction could possible be written.

   “One, Two, Three” is a fine, fine example. Told by an anonymous narrator with an unknown profession (a private operative working on his own? a gambler doing his best to follow up on an easy mark?), the story zigs and zags more than most novels do, with divorce proceedings, blackmail, and two bloody deaths high on the dance card.

   I tried to follow the explanation of who did what when and to who before giving up on it — it’s that complicated — and decided that the 1930s California setting and the total tough guy atmosphere were all I needed to tell you that if you ever get a chance to read this one or anything else by Paul Cain, you really ought to.