Reviewed by TONY BAER:


PAUL CAIN – Fast One. Doubleday Doran, hardcover, 1933. Originally published serially in Black Mask magazine. Reprint editions include: Bonded Mystery #10, 1946. Avon #178, paperback, 1948. Southern Illinois University Press, hardcover, 1978. Popular Library, paperback, 1978. Black Lizard, paperback, 1987.

   Gerry Kells is a retired gunman living in L.A. He’s now a gentleman gambler. Or at least a gambler. Whose bets are rarely gambles at all, since the fix is almost always in. That’s what he thinks.

   L.A. is wide open, and various gangs are battling for control. Kells wants none of it. He thinks he can stay out of the fray by staying neutral.

   But one by one, each of the mob bosses arrange a meeting, to hire his gun, to make him an offer he can’t refuse.

   I’m quits, he repeats. Time and time again. I’m done. I don’t even carry a gun.

   But no one believes him. They figure if he’s not with them, he’s against them. And they try to take him out.

   And one by one, they lose. Yes, he’s just one man. But he’s plenty tough and a fast one with a piece.

   The mobs keep pulling fast ones on him, only he’s faster. And before he knows it, he finds himself in a pretty good spot to take over L.A. himself. With a little luck, and some help from his moll Granquist and a couple of friends, he gives it a shot. Or however many shots he can, ’til the ammo runs out.

   It reminds me a fair bit of Red Harvest — another open city Poisonville, but from a gunman’s perspective. And like the Continental OP, Kells is constrained in his violence by a sense of justice and fair play missing from his adversaries. So while he’s no knight errant, he’s motivated as much by greed as revenge in the service of justice. Which he extracts, exactingly.

   The prose is Hammer-like. But don’t be fooled into reading it quickly. While my edition was under 150 pages, the action is dense. He doesn’t belabor the action. With spartan description: Double and triple crosses occur in an eye’s wink, and if you don’t take your time in reading and re-reading the lines as they come at you, you’ll find yourself lost. There’s lots of players and more action than you can shake a gat at. No time to flick off the safety. Be ready. It’s coming at you at the speed of birdshot.

   This is my third time reading it in the span of maybe twenty-five years. There’s so much action that I remembered very few of the details going into it. The sheer amount and speed of the action gives the book a level of re-readability seldom found. And I enjoyed it more and understood it better this time than ever before.

   I’d put it in the pre-1933 hardboiled canon, with the other cannonballs being Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest, Glass Key, Green Ice, Death in a Bowl, You Can’t Win, Louis Beretti, Young Lonigan, Sanctuary, Daughter of Earth, Georgia Nigger, the writings of Jim Tully and Hemingway, Life in the Iron Mills, and precious little else.

   Highest possible praise for this groundbreaking hardboiled novel.