Black Mask Library

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Black Mask Magazine discovers the first clear photos in color of Paul Cain from his family archive!  Find these newly discovered photos of Cain and new information about what the man was really like in THE BLACK MASK LIBRARY edition of Paul Cain: The Complete Stories (paperback) and The Paul Cain Omnibus (ebook), published by Otto Penzler's MysteriousPress.com and Open Road Media on December 17, 2013.  Introduction by Boris Dralyuk.  Afterword by Keith Alan Deutsch. Order on Amazon (paperback and ebook).

Paul Cain: An Introduction

[This introduction appears in two new collections
of Paul Cain’s work, Paul Cain: The Complete Stories
and The Paul Cain Omnibus,
released on December 17, 2013
by Otto Penzeler's MysteriousPress.com and Open Road Media.]

By Boris Dralyuk

Paul Cain. 1932. Inside Back Flap of FAST ONE.

Coleman said: “Eight ball in the corner.”


There was soft click of ball against ball and then sharper click as the black ball dropped into the pocket Coleman had called.

 

— Paul Cain, “Murder Done in Blue”

 

Somebody always takes it about as far as it’ll go, and no one took the hard-boiled farther than Paul Cain. Cain’s entire contribution to the genre — a slim novel and 14 stories, some of which haven’t seen print since the 1930s — is now presented in this volume.

          Raymond Chandler tagged Cain’s only novel, Fast One (1933), as “some kind of high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner.” They use that as a blurb; to my mind, those qualifications — “some kind,” “ultra” — reek of anxiety. Stacked pound-for-pound against Cain’s lean and war-hardened antihero Gerry Kells, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe comes off like a flabby, eccentric chatterbox — more Sydney Greenstreet than Humphrey Bogart.

          The novel’s title says it all: Fast One. Some have called it A Fast One or The Fast One, but that’s not it. There’s neither need nor time for articles. Someone or something, in the singular, is fast. Fast and singular. And the chase is on:

 

Kells walked north on Spring. At Fifth he turned west, walked two blocks, turned into a small cigar store. He nodded to the squat bald man behind the counter and went on through the ground-glass-paneled door into a large and bare back room.

 

          There’s so much momentum in those first lines — so little besides movement — that the reader can hardly keep up, much less take a pause. A pause might raise some questions. Just how does Kells get through that ground-glass-paneled door? Does he open it? Bust right through it? Roll through it as if it didn’t exist? But, of course, the door doesn’t exist. Cain’s language is stripped so bare it’s hardly referential. That’s the central paradox of the hard-boiled style: For all its reputed hardness, the universe it conjures is eerily immaterial — verbal, not substantive. Hard-boiled protagonists throw punches indefatigably, get blackjacked unconscious at the end of one chapter only to emerge with a slight headache at the start of the next, and keep moving to the last.

          Cain’s characters aren’t people, they’re billiard balls, propelled by an initial push and colliding till they’re all sunk — “One, Two, Three,” as the title of one of his stories has it. Fast One’s first chapter, which starts with Kells rolling down Spring in downtown L.A., set to spark a gang war, ends with a kind of carom shot involving a gambler named Jake Rose and a pint-sized triggerman:

 

Rose came around the desk and took the automatic out of Kells’ belt, held it by the barrel and swung it swiftly back and then forward at Kells’ head. Kells moved his hand enough to take most of the butt of the automatic on his knuckles, and bent his knees and grabbed Rose’s arm. Then he fell backwards, pulled Rose down with him.

The little man came into the room quickly and kicked the side of Kells’ head very hard. Kells relaxed his grip on Rose and Rose stood up, brushed himself off and went over and kicked Kells very carefully, drawing his foot back and aiming, and then kicking very accurately and hard.

The kitten jumped off the desk and went to Kells’ bloody head and sniffed delicately. Kells could feel the kitten’s warm breath. Then everything got dark and he couldn’t feel anything any more.

 

          That kitten is a nice touch. Sniffing, “delicately,” at a not-quite-dead piece of meat. Just another animal, drawn to a meal.

          It’s hard to believe that the first installment of Fast One, which debuted in the March 1932 issue of Black Mask, is Cain’s first appearance in print. He hit the ground running. The novel sets the pace for Cain’s other stories, while Kells sets the mold for their protagonists: obdurate plug-uglies or clever machers, such as the titular narrator of “Black” (May 1932); or Red, who narrates “Parlor Trick” (July 1932) and “Trouble-Chaser” (April 1934); or “St. Nick” Green of “Pineapple” (March 1936). Black, Red, Green — beautifully rendered abstractions careening across the flat surface of Cain’s prose.

 

Black Mask


Cain got his break thanks to Captain Joseph T. Shaw. In 1926, Shaw took the helm of what was then called The Black Mask magazine, a matrix for the hard-boiled style. (One of Shaw’s first acts as editor was dropping the “The” from the magazine’s title.) Twelve of the 14 hard-boiled stories reprinted in this volume first appeared in Black Mask, along with the five stories that were eventually sutured together as Fast One. Shaw’s previous star contributor, Dashiell Hammett, left the magazine in 1931, the year Cain arrived. Shaw himself was forced out by the publisher in 1936, the year Cain’s last story appeared in the magazine. Cain wasn’t just Hammett’s successor, to Shaw’s mind: “in the matter of grim hardness,” he wrote, Cain was Hammett’s superior. “Dash paused on the threshold, [Cain] went all the way.” [1]

          Whatever Shaw meant by “grim hardness,” it isn’t to everyone’s taste. An earlier edition of Cain’s stories from Centipede Press carried brief, perceptive introductions by leading names in crime writing, including Ed Gorman, Joe Gores, Edward D. Hoch, John Lutz, and Bill Pronzini. Most of the commentators were duly reverential, but some couldn’t hide their qualms. While Robert Randisi noted that Cain’s work is “[b]etter than most” of the Black Mask set, he still ranked it “a notch or two below that of Chandler and Hammett.” As Gorman put it, “[t]here is in Hammett a great sorrow and in Chandler great melancholy. Not a trace of either appears in Cain.”

          What Gorman mourns is the absence of an emotional load. But that lack is only the symptom of a profounder vacancy. Hammett was an inveterate lefty, and used the Continental Op to lance capitalism’s Poisonvilles, while Chandler, who admits to having learned “American just like a foreign language,” forever remained an outraged public school boy, pinning his hopes for civilization on a medieval knight in a powder-blue suit. One red and the other reactionary, both Hammett and Chandler harbored strong convictions — convictions expressed, whether intentionally or not, through their chosen genre. Not so with Cain, who seems to have been free of any such burden. The main thing his work expresses is the genre itself, in all its inexorable but essentially meaningless logic. He’s the oracle at Black Mask, huffing the fumes of Capt. Shaw’s cigars and delivering an almost unmediated vision of the hard-boiled as such.

 

Black Mask


In “Back in the Old Black Mask” (1987), the writer and historian William Brandon, who cut his teeth at Shaw’s “rough paper,” recalled his early mentor’s thoughts on “objective writing”:

 

Objectivity was part of what Shaw meant by style — a clean page, a clean line, an uncluttered phrase. I remember him showing me a couple of lines in a manuscript of Raymond Chandler’s, something such as, “I looked into the fire and smoked a cigarette. Then I went to bed.” This was the key line of the story, Shaw said. In those few minutes watching the fire the protagonist thought the problem through and reached his tough decision. You weren’t told that but you knew it. The line was clean, the effect was subtle but strong. Objective writing was good hard prose as against the spongy prose of subjectivity. [2]

 

          One senses that Shaw’s proclamation isn’t simply an older writer’s attempt to provoke or mystify a starry-eyed tyro. The line may or may not be pivotal for Chandler’s story, but it certainly provides a key to Shaw’s notion of storytelling. Rudimentary and drained of character, these two sentences report nothing but action that’s only implicitly, if at all, related to the plot. Brandon recalls another of Shaw’s edicts, more telling than the first:

 

A letter from Hammett, Shaw said one day, had included the line, “I can make a better wall with the same bricks now than I could make a year ago.” Shaw was much taken by the image of the wall and referred to it again and again. “It’s the wall itself that counts for the writer,” he said, “not what it closes in or out — that’s for the critics to mull over. The writer’s business is just making the best wall he can.” [3]

 

          Although Shaw insisted in the March 1931 issue of Black Mask that the magazine’s contents reflected his readership’s distinctly modern morality, which opposed “unfairness, trickery, injustice, cowardly underhandedness” and stood “for a square deal and a fair show in little or big things,” his shoptalk with Brandon exposes him as something of a doctrinaire formalist. [4] And despite their formal mastery, neither Hammett nor Chandler could quite force themselves to build a wall without considering what lies on either side of it. Cain, on the other hand, was ideally suited to the job. His spare vocabulary, skeletal syntax, and relentless action do more than realize Shaw’s ideal — they brazenly bare the genre’s devices, leaving readers like Gorman vaguely disconcerted and hungry for substance. This isn’t to say that Cain had nothing new to offer: His protagonists — gangsters, gamblers, and addicts — are some of the first true antiheroes in the hard-boiled tradition. But this, too, only takes the device of the ambiguously or unconventionally moral detective hero to its logical conclusion, demonstrating that the genre’s animating feature is action, not character. As Irvin Faust writes in the afterword to a 1978 reprint of Fast One, “the pace takes over, is itself a major character, perhaps the major character, and it controls the book.” [5] Cain doesn’t merely stick to Black Mask’s reduced palette; his Blacks, Reds, and Greens constantly call attention to its elemental makeup. One risk of this approach, of course, is painting oneself into a corner. Cain “went all the way,” alright — and dropped into the pocket Shaw had called.

 

Black Mask

 

All the same, within the confines of his genre, Cain’s work is remarkably diverse. For a virtuoso, self-imposed limitations can be assistive, even liberating — and Cain was nothing if not virtuosic. He did with the hard-boiled manner what Paganini had done with a single string.

 

          Fast One and the Black Mask tales from which it originated — “Fast One” (March 1932), “Lead Party” (April 1932), “Velvet” (June 1932), “The Heat” (August 1932), and “The Dark” (September 1932) — represent the summit of “grim hardness,” a third-person minimalism that realizes its own implosive potential. But Cain continued to experiment in this vein. “Murder Done in Blue” (June 1933), for instance, puts his ingenuity with the third-person perspective on full display. The story’s structure is cinematic, opening with close ups of three apparently unconnected murders before anchoring us to the protagonist who’ll connect the dots, ex-studio stuntman Johnny Doolin. Cain toys with our expectations, inviting us to an intimate dinner scene at Doolin’s kitchenette, but denying us true access:

 

A rather pretty fresh-faced girl was stirring something in a white saucepan on the little gas stove. She looked up and smiled and said: “Dinner’ll be ready in a minute,” wiped her hands on her apron and began setting the table. …

 

She was twenty-three or -four, a honey-blonde pink-cheeked girl with wide gray eyes, a slender well-curved figure.

 

Doolin went to her and kissed the back of her neck.

 

          The girl of indeterminate age is Doolin’s wife; the “something” in the saucepan is dinner. We get no help from Cain.

 

          On closer inspection, however, Cain’s stories feature a complexity of characterization beyond what one expects from his style. His protagonists may, at some level, be abstractions, but they could not function if they lacked depth. They individuate in subtle ways, especially in the first-person narratives. Black, who’s as tough as they come, radiates just enough warmth, by way of humor, to suggest a hint of vulnerability:

 

It was dark there, there wasn’t anyone on the street — I could have walked away. I started to walk away and then the sucker instinct got the best of me and I went back and bent over him.

 

I shook him and said: “Come on, chump — get up out of the puddle.”

 

A cab came around the corner and its headlights shone on me — and there I was, stooping over a drunk whom I’d never seen before, who thought my name was McCary.

 

          And there he is, a hard man whose momentary pause, a concession to a soft instinct, sets “Black” in motion. Cain’s minimalism also creates a context for an unusually effecting depiction of shock. Consider Red’s reaction to the sight of a corpse in “Parlor Trick”: “I looked at the glass and I looked up at the man again. I think I said: ‘Christ,’ very softly.” So much hinges on that “I think,” which undermines the rigid composure of Red’s voice. It’s worth remembering that trauma and its repression are a recurrent theme. As Kells quips through a grin, “I came back from France … with a set of medals, a beautiful case of shell shock and a morphine habit you could hang your hat on.”

 

          In other stories, Cain mastered the tone of breezy, world-weary confidence — which implies total competence. Keenan of “Dutch Treat” (December 1936) could take up any of the Continental Op’s cases midstream without missing a beat:

 

Our firm — the Old Man was it, Lefty and I just worked for him — handled more insurance cases than anything else and had a pretty swell reputation — as reputations of confidential investigating outfits go.

 

          Hammett, that Lefty, would be proud. An even breezier tone whistles through the pages of “One, Two, Three” (May 1933), this time with a witty formal justification: The unidentified P.I. recounts his case during a poker game, punctuating the narrative with an occasional “I’ll take three off the top, please” and “Pass.” The cards bring their own momentum to the table.

 

          This touches on another of Cain’s abiding themes, or rather, motifs: the gambling mentality. Be they grist for the mill of a penny-ante racket — like the black cabby Lonny in “555” (December 1935) — or high-rollers like Kells in Fast One, Shane in “Red 71” (December 1932), and Finn in “Sockdolager” (Aril 1936), Cain’s characters are always eloquent barometers for the thrills and desperations of the sporting life:

 

That Number Two spot was an inspiration. The Santa Anita track had just opened and all Southern California had gone nag-nutty. We got the cream in Number two; at two o’clock of any afternoon in the week you could stand in the middle of the main room and poke your finger in the eye of anywhere from ten to two dozen picture stars, wives of stars, “cousins” of producers, and just plain rich women. If you think men are natural gamblers you ought to see a lot of gals who can afford it in a bunch. A two grand parlay was chickenfeed. (“Sockdolager”)

 

          Cain’s dominant character is the incorrigible gambler, the risk-taker who lives and dies by his hunches. Criminals and their pursuers have that trait in common, and in Cain’s fiction, it’s seldom clear which is which. Cain makes the most of this irony in “Hunch” (March 1934), where the seasoned detective Cy Brennan follows his nose down a blind alley, taking the reader right along with him:

 

She was staring at him with wide hard eyes: one eyebrow was arched to a thin skeptical line, her red mouth curved humorously upward at the corners. She said with broad, biting sarcasm: “The old Brennan hunches — they never miss…”

 

          Keith Alan Deutsch addresses the thrill-seeking impulse inherent to so many of Cain’s characters in his afterword to Fast One, and shrewdly identifies its effect; Kells and his ilk confront us with a bracing, “clean” amorality. They are indeed the true forerunners of both Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967) and Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon (1987).

 

          Cain’s virtuosity extends to his perfectly-pitched depictions of disparate social strata. His narratives move effortlessly from the Roosevelt Hotel to a dirty flophouse, and his characters react to these shifts in various ways. “St. Nick” Green circulates among “legman, Park Avenue debutantes, pickpockets, touts, bank robbers and bank presidents, wardheelers, and international confidence men,” but remains a parvenu, spending “more of his time in night courts than in nightclubs.” Whereas Druse, a mysterious retired judge in “Pigeon Blood” (November 1933), exudes an elegance and sophistication alien to most of Cain’s protagonists: “Druse leaned forward. ‘I am not a fixer,’ he said. ‘My acquaintance is wide and varied — I am fortunate in being able to wield certain influences.’” There is a great deal of reserve in Druse’s speech; it may be the reticence of a man guarding old wounds.

 

          Only a writer freely exploring the boundaries of his genre could have produced such a variety of stories in so short a time. It is, in a sense, fitting that the man behind this protean achievement was himself so protean.

 

Black Mask

 

On November 2, 1986 the Los Angeles Times ran the following ad in the classifieds:

 

Information Sought

I am writing a biography of the
hard-boiled novelist Paul Cain
(a.k.a. Peter Ruric/George Sims),
author of the classic Los Angeles
gangster novel “Fast One” (1933).
I would appreciate hearing from
anyone with letters or biographical
information.

DAVID A. BOWMAN

 

          Bowman never did produce his book-length biography. He could only scrape so much together, and much of what he found couldn’t be verified. Along with essays by E. R. Hagemann and Peter Gunn, and book chapters by David E. Wilt and Woody Haut, Bowman’s introduction to the 1987 Black Lizard edition of Fast One is still one of the best sources on Cain’s life. Recent work by Lynn F. Myers Jr. and Max Allan Collins has added to Bowman's portrait. And yet, thanks largely to his own efforts, Cain has remained a cipher.

          The photo that originally appeared on Fast One’s jacket is a high-angle, ¾ portrait of Cain’s bearded face, with a diagonal white bar across his eyes. It’s the only published picture we have of him, and might as well have been taken by Man Ray. The white band is an obvious but striking feature. So is his first self-obliterating, deflective, yet spasmodically revealing autobiographical sketch, which begins:

 

PAUL CAIN

isn’t his real name.

is slender, blond, usually bearded.

has wasted his first thirty years as a

matter of course and principle; wan-

dered over South America, Europe,

northern Africa and the Near East;

been a buson’s-mate, Dada painter,

gambler, and a “no”-man in Holly-

wood.

likes Mercedes motor-cars, peanut

butter, Gstaad, and phonograph

records of Leslie Hutchinson, Scotch

whiskey, some of the paintings of

Chirico, gardenias, vegetables and

sour cream, Garbo, Richebourg

1904, and Little Pam.

dislikes parsnips, the color pink,

sopranos, men who wear white silk

sox, backgammon, cigars and a great

many men, women, and children.

 

          Cain’s lies — and many were to follow in subsequent autobiographical statements — form a predictable pattern: unlikely ports of call, unbelievable occupations, and preposterous literary accomplishments. He never completed “a new novel of crime and blood and thunder, tentatively titled Three in the Dark,” and no library in the world holds “a melodramatic farce” titled Young Man Sees God, or any of his other supposed titles: Hypersensualism: A Practical Philosophy for AcrobatsSyncopaenThe Naked ManAdvertisement for DeathBroadThe Cock-Eyed Angel; or Seven Men Named Caesar. Nor is it likely that anyone will ever track down the long-lost acetate reels of Cain’s “motion picture to end motion pictures entitled Grapefruit and You,” which somehow calls to mind the Gerry Kells-like Jimmy Cagney flattening a grapefruit on Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy (1931) — except you’re Mae Clarke. And of course Fast One, too, might just be a gag.

          Cain was, in fact, an Iowan named George Caryl Sims, born in Des Moines on May 30, 1902, to one-time police detective and drugstore owner William Dow Sims and his wife Eva, née Freberg, the daughter of Swedish immigrants. [6] The exact date of his family’s relocation to Los Angeles remains unknown; the young Sims and his mother, who was by then divorced, probably made the move in 1921, while his father and paternal grandfather, George C. Sims, a Union veteran of the Civil War, joined them a few years later. Although Myers and Collins had found William Sims listed as a salesman in the 1924 Des Moines City Directory, the 1923 Los Angeles City Directory has William D. Sims, George C. Sims, and George C. Sims, “Jr.” residing at 1201 June St., while Mrs. Eva W. Sims is described as a stenographer at 6026-D Hollywood Blvd. [7]

          One can guess at the reasons for the family’s exodus from Des Moines to “double Dubuque,” as H. L. Mencken dubbed it. Boom-time Los Angeles was a magnet for well-heeled Midwesterners like the elder George C. Sims. Louis Adamic described these “Folks” of the ‘20s — evocatively and not without sympathy — in his autobiography Laughing in the Jungle (1932):

They were pioneers back in Ioway and Nebraska. No doubt they swindled a little, but they always prayed a little, too, or maybe a great deal. And they paid taxes and raised young ones. They are old and rheumatic. They sold out their farms and businesses in the Middle West and wherever they used to live, and now they are here in California — sunny California — to rest and regain their vigor, enjoy climate, look at pretty scenery, live in little bungalows with a palm-tree or banana plant out front, and eat in cafeterias. Toil-broken and bleached out, they flock to Los Angeles, fugitives from the simple, inexorable justice of life, from hard labor and drudgery, from cold winters and blistering summers of the prairies.... [8]


         
Los Angeles also drew younger Midwesterners on the make. Indeed, the most revealing detail of the routine, telegraphic entry in the 1923 City Directory has nothing to do with the Sims family’s living arrangement. It’s a matter of professional ambition. George C. Sims, Jr. — twenty-one years of age — is registered as an “author.” [9] In the mid-‘20s, probably eager to shake the image of an Iowan bumpkin, Sims rechristened himself Ruric (first George, then Peter). He began cutting a figure in Hollywood, grabbing production assistant and assistant director credits on Josef von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters (1925) and A Woman of the Sea (1926), respectively.

          It was at this time that his flair for pseudonyms left a permanent mark on Myrna Williams, a young starlet searching for a screen name. In her memoir, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming (1987), she writes: “Peter Rurick [sic], a wild Russian writer of free verse, suddenly came up with ‘Myrna Loy.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ It sounded alright, but I still wasn’t convinced about changing my name.” [10] A Russian free-verse poet? Surely a ruse, but his research was passable. He probably borrowed Peter from Peter the Great, and Ruric from the ninth-century founder of the Rurikid dynasty. And Myrna Loy, for its part, sounds suspiciously similar to Mina Loy, a real free-verse poet. Cain would later claim to have published in Blast and transition. Anachronistic fabrications, but evidence of wide-ranging reading. He would have run across Mina Loy’s work in the little magazines. A couple of her “Aphorisms on Futurism” (1914) even seem to predict Cain’s distinctly modernistic aesthetic: “IN pressing the material to derive its essence, matter becomes deformed. AND form hurtling against itself is thrown beyond the synopsis of vision.”


         
By 1930 he was in New York. His stint there yielded a new persona — Paul Cain — and a bruising relationship with an actress named Gertrude Michael, who matched the alcoholic Sims drink for drink. In 1932 she landed an M-G-M screen test in Hollywood, and he tagged along. They took up residence at the stately Montecito Hotel & Apartments (6650 Franklin Avenue), where he crossed paths with a fellow Black Mask regular, Raoul Whitfield. It was here that Sims completed Fast One, dedicating it to Michael, who likely served as the model for Granquist, Kells’ alcoholic moll. He sold the novel’s story to Paramount, which turned it into Gambling Ship (1933), a lumbering vehicle for Cary Grant and Benita Hume. Sims and Michael split when the book was still hot off the presses; as the L. A. Times gossip columnist “Tip Poff” put on October 23, 1933, “Peter Ruric (Paul Cain) and Gertrude Michael are going places. But not together.”  How right he was: the three of them — Ruric, Cain, and Michael — would chart their own courses.

 

          As Ruric, Sims enjoyed a respectable if humdrum career in screenwriting, which began with work on the script to Affairs of a Gentleman (1934). His most distinguished effort was the screenplay for Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), a masterpiece of expressionistic horror. In a January 1998 interview with Tom Weaver, Shirley Ulmer described her husband’s collaborator as “brilliant, really, but cuckoo. […] He wasn’t like any ordinary person I’d ever met. But very, very brilliant — Edgar adored him, and they were very close.” [11] Edgar Ulmer’s own assessment, given to Peter Bogdanovich in 1970, is a bit more somber: “He was a young man who had come out from New York, and I met him; a very intelligent boy who should have been a great playwright but got lost.” [12] Relying on the testimony of relatives, Bowman limns the Ruric pose: he was a “blond, bearded member of the Malibu Beach crowd, taken to wearing ascot scarves.” [13] He apparently spent the next four years in Europe with his mother. The only record of his work in the European film industries is shared credit for the script to Jericho (1937), a British drama starring Paul Robeson that was released in the U.S. as Dark Sands. Sims then returned to make another splash in Tinseltown.

 

          His accomplishments of note during this second Hollywood period are the story for Twelve Crowded Hours (1938), which he hammered out with Garrett Fort — an adherent of Meher Baba whose life would end in suicide at a Los Angeles hotel in 1945 — and script work on Grand Central Murder (1942), a giddy maze of flashbacks that highlights his facility with form. He also contributed to the adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Night of January 16th (1941).

 

          On August 18, 1939, he married a twenty-year-old “cigarette girl” from Nebraska named Virginia Maxine Glau, who changed her moniker, at her husband’s suggestion, to Mechel Ruric. (Although Bowman gives her name as Mushel, the L. A. Times and the 1940 Census record it as Mechel.)  As Bowman describes it, Mechel and Sims met cute at her place of work: “One night, he and the notorious Prince Romanoff wobbled into the new nightclub, the Mocambo. Romanoff wobbled because he was nipped, and Ruric wobbled because he was nipped and his leg was in a cast.” [14] The impostor Ruric palling around with the impostor Romanoff? All the makings of a royal Russian farce.

 

          The Rurics’ honeymoon period came to a screeching halt seven months later, in March 1940, with Mechel’s flight from the third-story balcony of the couple’s home at 1412 N. Kingsley Drive, after what must have been a hell of a quarrel. She survived and stuck with her husband (for the most part) until 1943. Mechel — who was by then Michele Maxine Greenhill — furnished Bowman with a bleak sketch of a man losing his grip: “On most nights Ruric drove home from the studio blind drunk, miraculously navigating the curving driveway without steering off the cliff. He then stumbled up to the porch, crashed through the front door, and passed out in the hallway.” [15]

          When Mechel finally left him, Sims took a room at the Chateau Marmont (8221 Sunset Blvd.), where he befriended an unlikely fellow resident, Sinclair Lewis, who’d been brought out by M-G-M to work on a screenplay with Dore Schary. Lewis writes about Sims, who was introduced to him as Peter Ruric, in a series of letters to his mistress, Marcella Powers.  His letter of July 17, 1943, on Marmont stationary, gives us another glimmer of Sims’s mythic self, and of its power to impress:

My great pal here a new man whom you would like as much as you do Hal Smith (with less safety from propositioning, however) — Peter Ruric, to whom I was introduced by [Clifton] Kip Fadiman but who proved to be an MGM writer with a cell just a few doors from mine. He is in the Elliott [sic] Paul tradition, with a touch of Peter Godfrey (no, haven’t seen him yet) and a dash of Francois Villon. For years he has hewed out a movie script, then escaped to Paris — China — Carmel — Buenos Ayres, to write an exquisite but unsaleable story, and, casually along the way, to marry or just amiably live with and just as casually to leave some lovely girl — I have only his genteel and unpretentious word for it, however, that they were lovely.


          Elliot Paul is indeed an awfully astute comparison. Born in 1891 — just over a decade before Sims — Paul was an experimental novelist in the early ‘20s, an émigré in Gertrude Stein’s Parisian circle and a co-editor of transition in the middle of that decade, a “missing person” on a Spanish isle in the early ‘30s, and a Hollywood screenwriter in the ‘40s. Snatches of his biography correspond so perfectly to the facts and fictions of Sims’s own story that one is justified in asking whether the latter modeled himself on the former. Elliot Paul’s name even forms a Venn diagram with Paul Cain’s, and the titles of his first three novels — Indelible (1922), Impromptu (1923), and Imperturbe (1924) — sound like prequels to Syncopean. The situation, of course, is more complicated; Elliot Paul may not have served as a direct role model, but he did represent the society to which Sims had always wished to belong. Ironically, while Sims continued to place stock in spurious avant-garde credentials, Paul was turning to crime fiction. His The Mysterious Mickey Finn: Or, Murder at the Café du Dôme (1939) inaugurated a series of parodic detective novels starring Homer Evans, an American expatriate in Paris. In more ways than one, Sims and the smart set were ships in the night.

          On July 25, Lewis describes a night in the life of Hollywood “players”: “last evening, going again to PR [Players Restaurant] with Peter Ruric and a couple of gals (each of whom was preposterously more beautiful, intelligent, and adorable than any NY girl, such as this Rosemary Povah).” But by August 10, Lewis had tired of the Ruric mystique: “Dinner last night, the only one attempted in my tiny dining-room where houseman here serves [me] breakfasts: Cedric [Hardwicke], who was charming as ever, Alex Knox (Jason) who was fair, Peter Ruric who was dreary...” It appears that many in Hollywood were beginning to feel the same way.

 

          Cain, for his part, had a small resurgence. In 1944 Sims took a trip to New York, renting an apartment at 3 E 33rd Street and meeting with Shaw. After his return to Hollywood, Sims’s erstwhile mentor helped resuscitate his nose-diving protégé’s career, including “Red 71” in The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1946). Shaw’s correspondence with Sims, who was living in a two-bedroom home at 2372 Loma Vista Place, involved more obfuscation and outright malarkey. Meanwhile, the Shaw Press in Hollywood (a subsidiary of Saint Enterprises) reprinted Fast One in 1944, followed by Sims’s own compilation of his finest Black Mask tales, Seven Slayers (1946). Avon would keep both volumes in print into the ‘50s.

         
By that time, Ruric was entirely on the outs with the studios. His last screenplay had been a collaborative adaptation of two Maupassant stories, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944), and in 1948 he received a credit for the appropriately named Alias a Gentleman, which was based on a story he had sold to M-G-M in 1941. As Myers and Collins disclose, 1948 also saw Ruric writing two episodes for the radio program Cavalcade of America, “Incident at Niagara” (September 27, 1948) and “Home to the Heritage” (October 11, 1948). They quote radio historian Martin Grams: “It is interesting to note that he co-wrote the scripts with Virginia Radcliffe, who herself was a free-lance writer and wrote numerous scripts for Cavalcade.” [16]  This partnership is interesting indeed, and wasn’t limited to the airwaves. Sims and Radcliffe, who was born in Chicago in 1914, were married sometime in 1945 or ‘46, and their union lasted until the end of the decade. Radcliffe, the second Virginia in Sims’s life, had previously been married to the prolific bit-player and sometime writer George M. Lynn; after divorcing Sims, she’d go on to marry William Hurst, becoming an outspoken conservationist and penning The Caribbean Heritage, an illustrated history of the islands, which was published shortly after her death in 1976.

          Sometime during their marriage the couple lived in New York, and it was at this point that Sims’s old acquaintance from the Chateau Marmont, Sinclair Lewis, reappeared in his life. Lewis’s biographer Mark Schorer writes:

[Lewis] was spending as many hours as she would give him with Miss Powers, but there were empty stretches when he turned to people whom he hardly knew — the young Hollywood script-writer Peter Ruric, for example, who was now writing a novel in New York, and whom Lewis invited to his apartment with his fiancée, and to whom he said that he could not work in New York, that he was returning as soon as possible to his home ground. One afternoon he had this couple to a cocktail party with some other young people, including Miss Powers, and presently he sent the whole party out to dinner, promising to join them later. He made reservations for them at an 86th Street Brauhaus, to which they proceeded, and where they dined, danced and waited for him; but he never came. His guests spoke of him with faint scorn, a hopeless case, and Miss Powers, although defensive of him, despaired, too. [17]


          Lewis himself had grown dreary. Schorer seems to have learned of this meeting partly from Miss Powers, and partly from Virginia Radcliffe herself, whom he thanks in his acknowledgments.

          Records from the U.S. Copyright Office also show that Sims had written plays as Ruric that were never published, registering Memory of Man, a Play. In Three Acts in 1947, and Count Bruga, a Morality Play in Three Acts in 1949. [18] The latter was based on Ben Hecht’s 1926 novel, a satire of Greenwich Village bohemia and its archetypal poète maudit, Maxwell Bodenheim.

Black Mask


In 1949, Marcel Duhamel, the legendary editor of Gallimard’s “Série noire,” added a French translation of Fast One to his catalog. Inclusion in this prestigious series — a favorite among French intellectuals — encouraged Sims. By this time, it must have been clear to him that the Paul Cain stories stood the best chance of gaining him entry into the world of the European avant-garde, to which he had long claimed allegiance. After all, even Gertrude Stein had lent the hard-boiled crime novel her imprimatur in Everybody’s Autobiography (1937): “I never try to guess who has done the crime and if I did I would be sure to guess wrong but I liked somebody being dead and how it moves along and Dashiell Hammett was all that and more.” [19]  A year earlier, in her lecture “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them” (1936), Stein had mused on the detective story’s peculiar merits: “It is very curious but the detective story which is you might say the only really modern novel form that has come into existence gets rid of human nature by having the man dead to begin with.” [20]  Stein valued style and pace, and Hammett had certainly provided, but it was Cain who would have best met her needs; no one in the hard-boiled school had so fearlessly elevated style and pace over moral substance and “human nature.” Indeed, no crime novel was more modernistic in a Steinian sense than Fast One, and Duhamel had given its author recognition when he needed it most.

          According to his memoir, Raconte pas ta vie (1972), Duhamel had the dubious honor of meeting Sims, whom he knew as Ruric, in France around that time. The man he encountered was a physically decrepit, unbearably needy specimen, who was “unable to take a single step by himself” — a limp “octopus,” a “vampire” that would exceed Polanski’s imagination. [21] Duhamel’s story confirms the notion that Sims had bottomed out, and was now betting on Paul Cain:

It was Hollywood that had done him in. A renowned screenwriter, a darling at “parties,” disgusted with work that was unworthy of him, he ended up seeking inspiration in alcohol. This was followed by emotional setbacks, two divorces, three detoxification cures, and a course of psychoanalysis; he came to Europe looking for some kind of salvation, after having tried everything else. “And,” he said, “you are my last hope.”  [22]


          Duhamel couldn’t stand him. Using the advance for a French translation of Seven Slayers, the editor sent Sims packing for Spain. Life in Alicante and on Mallorca seems to have worked miracles for Sims’s health; it’s hard to believe that his whimsical article on Spanish cooking for Gourmet magazine, “Viva la Castañetas: A Spanish [Mostly Mallorquin] Letter” (June 1951), could have been written by the same “jellyfish” that Duhamel had seen off at the train station. Upon receiving word of Sims’s newfound joie de vivre, and another marriage, it took Duhamel “some time to recover from the shock.” [23]

 

          Peggy, née Gregson, had recently graduated from the University of North Carolina and was taking a grand tour of Europe with her girlfriend, Jeanne Summers. She, Jeanne, and Jeanne’s mother met the man they knew as Peter Ruric at a Mallorcan restaurant in 1955.  It was Jeanne’s mother, roughly Sims’s contemporary, who struck up the conversation, but Sims had his eye on Peggy. Although he was thirty years her senior, and a year older than her own father, the bohemian writer swept the girl off her feet. She briefly returned to her family home in Varina, Virginia, but she didn’t stay away long, soon heading back to Spain.

 

          Peggy would become Cain’s third. But in Catholic Spain, two was one too many. The couple tied the knot in Tripoli, Libya, where they spent a month in 1956 in order to established residence. 

 

          They eventually set sail for California on a freighter from Italy, travelling through the Panama Canal and points south for “forty days and forty nights,” as Peggy recalls. They settled in South Laguna and had two sons: Peter Craig in 1956 and Michael Sean in 1958. According to Peggy, Sims, now in his fifties, wasn’t hitting the bottle any more than was usual for the period. She describes a happy and charmed life, although she admits his old Hollywood friends may have wondered what he was doing “with that little girl.” He was a kind, loving man — a snazzy dresser and a wonderful cook — but simply couldn’t provide for his family. He refused to abandon his identity as a writer, even when the writing opportunities had dried up for good. Peggy sensed that his old friends weren’t as eager to see him as he was to see them. He didn’t seem to be writing much anyhow. But pumping gas wasn’t an option, nor was letting Peggy work.

 

          When Peter Craig was ten months old, the family travelled cross-country in Sims’s Thunderbird, paying a visit to the Gregsons in Virginia. The dashing author wowed Peggy’s friends, but unnerved her parents. In December 1958, a few months after Michael Sean’s birth, the family went east again. Sims first connected with his friend Jim Lowry in Washington, D.C., and then took off for Cuba. Peggy and the kids settled with her parents in Virginia.

 

Black Mask

 

Sims had tried to consolidate his personae as early as the mid-‘40s, when he’d composed a bio for Shaw’s Omnibus that began, “Paul Cain is Peter Ruric, wrote his first crime novel in the early thirties on a bet.” Shaw did not to use it (although a smaller “Peter Ruric” did appear in parentheses below “Paul Cain”). Sims had also swapped “Peter Ruric” for “Paul Cain” on the tear sheets of the stories in Seven Slayers, which now sit in the Joseph Shaw papers at UCLA’s Young Research Library. The publishers kept “Paul Cain.”

 

          On top of all his other woes — both mental and material — this diffusion of identity must have been exhausting. Nowhere is that exhaustion more evident than in the letters and postcards that Sims sent Peggy and his sons in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, care of her family and friends in Virginia. He was no longer able to control or keep up the appearances that were so important to him. Bowman secured some of these letters from Peggy in the 1980s, and copies now sit in the E. R. Hagemann papers at UCLA’s Young Research Library.

 

          Reading them can be a painful experience. One of the longer letters is a New Year’s greeting, written aboard a German liner in Havana on the evening of December 31, 1958, and the morning of January 1, 1959 — on the eve of Batista’s flight. Sims writes of his failing health, an unsuccessful attempt to place a novel called Truce, faint hope for a play called The Ecstasy Department, and his generally dwindling prospects:

 

“Truce” is out for the moment, honey — Doubleday is edgy about it being “uncompromisingly sexual” — they didn’t say sexy, they said sexual — and they’ll have to see more of it and for this time of unpeace it isn’t the answer. Maybe The Ecstasy Department is, but it’s in a trunk in Laguna. It probably isn’t the answer either — there are so few answers left for a man with thought shaped like mine who is fighting for so much more than his life. I thought of a cheap hotel in some small town by the sea in Florida. Is there one? So. After, conceivably, getting physically well in the sun, what would I do? I thought of S. America. I thought of Africa. (I whisper this, ever so gently — a man in even consummately concealed sorrow is not made welcome in new places. They know. He’s not made welcome in old places either. I may learn to ever more consummately conceal it during this, God grant, short empty interval, but I shall never be really welcome again anywhere until I am whole again. Stop. Unwhisper.)

 

          In the end, his consummate disguises worn thin, Sims returned to Los Angeles: “And so, whether I like it or not, California seems to be in the cards, so I’m trying to like it. It takes a certain kind of courage to go back there looking like a tramp and face the music and the bill-collectors and our friends.”

 

          Cracking Hollywood again proved nearly impossible. His last credit is for a contribution to the script of “The Man from Blackhawk,” an episode of the TV Western The Lady in Yellow, which aired on January 24, 1960. His letters — one sent from Mrs. Tita D’Oporto’s Studio House apartment at 6201 Fountain Avenue, several cuts below the Montecito — tell of strained circumstances. He claims that three stories he had written for a television series were abruptly shelved. Above all, he longs to reunite with his family, pleading for a response, composing nursery rhymes for his children, and crowding the letters’ margins with doodles of concentric hearts and polka-dotted elephants:

 

If you said, ‘They’re paying high wages in the brinzel factory at Dimpling Ky. and need men — we’ll meet you there — you can work on books and stories nightstand Sundays,’ I’d be there so fast it would make all our Ruric heads spin.

 

          Peggy, who now lives in Richmond, Virginia, still keeps these letters, along with other mementos of their relationship. He never stopped writing to her, and she responded when she could, even after remarrying in June 1962. Suffused with charm and punctured by whispered sorrow, Sims’s letters may be his last great work. They offer us a fleeting glimpse of the man behind the fiction, who had found happiness in family life and was desperate to recapture it.

 

          Sims died of ureter and lung cancer on June 23, 1966. His last known address was a small bungalow at 6127 Glen Holly Street; he passed away at the Toluca Lake Convalescent Hospital. His death certificate states that he had made Los Angeles his home for 48 years, and had been an author for 43 of them. Sims’s first bold autobiographical statement supports this claim, by hook or by crook. He might have been telling the truth when he listed himself as an “author” in the 1923 L. A. City Directory, although no one has yet found any of his writing from that period. And if he had been lying, then that listing was his first work of fiction, published 43 years before his death.

    
     
Bowman tracked Sims’s posthumous fate to another dead end: “His body was cremated, and the box of ashes sat in a Glendale cemetery’s storage room until 1968 when it was shipped to Hawaii to the care of a woman who was either an old lover or an old friend.” [24]

 

          The ashes were stored at Glendale’s Grand View Memorial Park, and dispatched to Honolulu’s Nuuanu Memorial Park on May 24, 1968. At that time, Peggy and her boys were living in Honolulu, where her second husband, a neurologist, was stationed during the Vietnam War. Peggy did not claim the ashes, but Sims had known that she and the kids would be in Hawaii. She conjectures that he arranged for a friend to scatter his ashes near his family.

 

          This friend was likely Tita D’Oporto, who appears to have been as close to the man in the final years of his life as anyone. The “Peter Ruric AKA George Sims” file at the Crippen Mortuary in La Crescenta, which bought the Eckerman-Heisman Mortuary that had handled Sims’s cremation, contains letters and notes from D’Oporto, her attorney, and Sims’s maternal aunt, Alma E. Winkler. It is D’Oporto who took the greatest interest in Sims’s affairs.  She lived next door to him on Glen Holly Street, but was abroad when he passed. Upon her return, she contacted the mortuary and informed them that his wishes were to have his cremains scattered at sea. She herself passed away in Hawaii in 1976.

          In 1965, D’Oporto sent a letter to Sims’s aunt, enclosing a Western Union telegram that a young George Sims had wired to his grandmother on October 31, 1919. D’Oporto’s letter hints at the dire straits in which Sims found himself in his final years and points to the lingering mysteries of his life:

Peter is 63 years old, his birthday was May 30th, 1902. The enclosed wire is dated 1919, so he would have been 17 years then and maybe they have a record of his service in the Navy in Des Moines. Would you try to find out? I was at the navy Recruiting Office in L–A– and could not get anywhere. They told me I would have to write to Washington D.C. but have to have his service number — but if he was stationed in Des Moines, it may be easier to get it there.

Peter gets now $ 52.– Social Security and $ 75.– disability check. They said he should get about $ 100 from the Navy if he is disabled. When in the Hospital, he does not get the disability check, but a bill for over $ 40 a day, which, I believe, is a matter of form and they will not collect it unless he should be able to work again. He does not remember anything about the Navy and I did not show him the wire. He never told me that he was George Sims. There is no use to bring it up unless necessary for him, I thought. His mind is not always clear, that is, he does not remember things and people at times. I feel very sad about it all and wished I could do more for him.

I must close now — still have plenty to do, but I would like to see you again — maybe when Peter feels better and we all can meet.


          The wire itself, sent collect from Detroit and telegraphic by definition, is the work of a young man commencing a life of misadventures both on and off the page:

MRS GEORGE C SIMS

    PHONE BLACK 3410 EAST 33RD AND UNIVERSITY AVE DESMOINES IOWA I AM GOING ABOARD EAGLE TEN BOUND FOR PORTSMOUTH CLOTHES HAVE NOT ARRIVED FROM CHICAGO I CANNOT DRAW CLOTHES HERE PLEASE SEND MONEY ENOUGH TO BUY A FEW CLOTHES AND PURCHASE NECCESSITIES [sic] FOR THREE WEEKS TRIP HAVE NOT BEEN PAID ABSOLUTELY BROKE PROBABLY LEAVE MONDAY LOVE TO ALL

    GEORGE C SIMS.


          There is an equal measure of exuberance and desperation in all of Sims’s writing. His telegram confirms, perhaps, what he had claimed in a letter to Shaw in 1944 — that he’d spent a part of his youth in Chicago. But it appears to have been a small part.

          The U.S. Navy Reserve archives contain the record of one George Caryl Sims, who enlisted on June 7, 1917 and was to serve a stint until May 30, 1923.  Sims — described as a ruddy, 5' 8", 131 lb., 17-year-old, with a 3" operation scar on his right abdomen — was discharged on January 17, 1921 for “inaptitude.”  The record includes pleas for the boy's release from Rep. C. C. Dowell, on the grounds that his mother is ill and needs his help, and responses from the office of then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt.  It is a less-than-stellar record of accomplishments — featuring several incidents of losing government property, disregard of orders, and disobedience. So began one of the strangest careers in hardboiled fiction.

 

Black Mask

 

Giving oneself over to a genre reveals more than one intends. Things swim up. A reader is tempted to mine the stories for autobiographical traces — and traces abound. As Myers and Collins point out, the boorish police dick Freberg in “Hunch” bears Sims’s mother’s maiden name, and wears a badge, like his father. [25] Make what you will, then, of Freberg’s fate:

 

He caught Freberg by the throat with his right hand drew his left far back and snapped it suddenly forward; he could feel his hard fist sink into the soft pallor of Freberg’s face. Freberg crashed into the wall, sank slowly to the floor. ... He glanced back at Freberg once, expressionlessly, then he went out and closed the door.

 

          The protagonist justifies Freberg’s beating with a cryptic suggestion: “I know where he buries the bodies.” Myers and Collins report that Fast One’s Granquist shares a name with a family that resided in Des Moines. [26] But this kind of reading may take us nowhere.

          What erupts in the stories, regardless of names, are fits of misogyny, which are pronounced even in a Black Mask context. Women get their lights punched out for their own good: “‘Papa knows best, baby.’ He brought one arm up stiffly, swiftly from his side; the palm down, his fist clinched. His knuckles smacked sharply against her chin” (Fast One). Women wreak havoc in men’s lives and are punished gruesomely. In the late “Death Song” (January 1936), a dipsomaniac starlet is fatally bludgeoned with an “outsize vibrator.” It’s a joke, yes, but a tendentious one — disclosing something of what Sims may have been repressing. He wrote the story when Michael’s career was in serious peril, after a well-publicized car crash in San Bernardino and ahead of a mysterious hospitalization in New York for “toxic poisoning.”

 

          They may be playful experiments with form, but the Paul Cain stories are studded with laconic indications of buried trauma, resentment, and addiction.


          Then there’s “The Tasting Machine” (1949), the last piece of fiction Sims published. It appeared under the Peter Ruric byline in Gourmet magazine, which would later run his article on Mallorcan cuisine. The story is collected here, although it is expressly not one of Cain’s hard-boiled narratives. Rather, it’s something like a hypertrophied version of John Collier’s urbane fantasies. Compare its first sentence to the opening of Fast One:

 

In fine weather, of which there was a spate that summer, it was the whim of M. Etienne de Rocoque to emerge from his restaurant in East Sixty-first Street at exactly six-thirteen of an evening and stroll west to Fifth Avenue, south to Sixtieth, east to Park Avenue, north to Sixty-first, and so back to the restaurant and home.

 

          The protagonist’s very name signifies a new point of departure, a Rococo tumescence that stands in direct opposition to Cain’s minimalism. But style is ultimately style, and this is another exercise.

 

          De Rocoque is a master chef, who holds a beautiful girl named Mercedes captive above his restaurant. He had “snatched” her “from the harem of a mighty caliph at the age of three” — “after wading through veritable seas of blood” — and has “reared” her for the last fifteen years, “inviolate from the world.” Among de Rocoque’s companions is a talking myna bird named Gertrude, “whose words and usually her sentiments were most uncouth.” The chef’s ménage is invaded by a little robot dead-set on tasting everything in its path, including Mercedes. The story climaxes as Mercedes — sequestered with the tasting machine — cries out in either agony or joy, while de Rocoque strikes at her locked door with an ax. Sims’s career in fiction ends with an ironic fantasy about a hypersensual stylist whose attempts to control his inner world are born of insecurity and frustrated by mechanistic drives.


          This surreal joke-work in Gourmet magazine casts an odd backward light on the Cain stories. Losing himself in the styles he’d mastered, Sims gave free rein to the things he most wished to obscure. But whatever it is that initially pushed him to the outer reaches of the hard-boiled and propelled his characters on their collision courses, the work he left behind as Cain won’t be outdone.

 

          Paul Cain was not the only Black Mask regular to transcend the limitations of his genre, but he is unique in having transcended those limitations by exploiting them to their fullest. He achieved a refinement of the hard-boiled manner that is truly exhilarating. Unlike Hammett and Chandler, whose work reckoned with the problems of modernity, Cain embraced a modernist aesthetic, manipulating the devices available to him with radical experimental energy. Cain’s focus on aesthetics accounts for the dizzying diversity of his fiction — his use of a variety of perspectives, stylistic registers in dialogue, and narrative structures. This focus also liberated Cain from moral concerns, allowing him to craft distinctly modern antiheroes whose compulsive, uninhibited risk-taking is a fictional analog to their creator’s own approach to writing.

 

          Cain’s work is anything but confessional, but this triumph of style, this masterful performance — this modernistic put-on, as it were — testifies to the tremendous gifts and troubles of the man behind the pose. The stories bear his indelible signature, in invisible ink.

          Sims was an ironist given to elaborate fronts that revealed as much as they concealed. His tenuous grasp on his own identity allowed him to sink, for a brief time, into the role of Paul Cain, and to keep playing as long as he could. As the narrator of “Dutch Treat” says about a game of “Spit-in-the-Ocean,” “I won, or maybe I lost — I forget which.”

 

Black Mask

 

The letters and drafts quoted in this introduction are housed in box 33, folder 9, of the E. R. Hagemann Papers and Collection of Detective Fiction (1672), and box 5, folder 6, of the Joseph T. Shaw Papers (2052) — both in the Department of Special Collections of UCLA’s Young Research Library — in the Sinclair Lewis Letters to Marcella Powers collection, at the St. Cloud State University Archives, St. Cloud, Minnesota, and in the “Peter Ruric AKA George Sims” file at the Crippen Mortuary, located at 2900 Honolulu Avenue, La Crescenta, CA 91214. I thank the library staffs, the staff at the Crippen Mortuary, and the Harrelson family for permission to quote this material. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and I thank them for the chance to amend, expand, and republish it. I am especially grateful to Keith Alan Deutsch, my brilliant, indefatigable editor, for soliciting this piece, for helping me at every stage of the writing process, and — most of all — for facilitating Paul Cain’s long-deserved rediscovery.

 

          I owe my deepest gratitude to Mike and Peggy Harrelson, son and second wife of the man at the center of this essay. To say that they have been gracious would be an understatement. Their generosity and warmth were an unexpected gift. I would not have made contact with Mike were it not for a chain of remarkable coincidences, one of which placed me in the basement of UCLA’s Young Research Library on the same day that Professor William Marling of Case Western Reserve University was conducting his own research on the Hagemann collection. Bill asked me what I was up to, I told him, and he mentioned that he was in touch with the Harrelson family. I remain in his debt.

 

          Mike’s initial letter to Bill Marling, in which he describes himself and his brother, is worth quoting: “Peter [Craig Harrelson is an] emergency room doctor who works very little and incessantly travels the planet's backwaters. He's a colorful cat who marches to his own drummer. I, while much less charismatic, have made part of my living with a pen.” Their father, of whom they knew very little until recently, seems to have passed on a gift for language and a thirst for adventure, as well as some other curious traits. I am told that, like his father, Peter Craig has been known to rename his girlfriends.

 

          The Harrelsons have supplied me with a wealth of information about Paul Cain/Peter Ruric’s later years, which I am honored to pass on to his readers. Peggy’s memories and insights have added color and nuance to an unnaturally stark image – an image of Cain’s own making. Nothing represents this contribution more vividly than the three photographs of Cain/Ruric, Peggy, and their son Peter Craig, taken in the summer of 1957 at the Gregson family home in Varina, Virginia. These candid, animated family portraits are a necessary corrective to Cain’s stylized black-and-white author photo from the early ‘30s; the early portrait was intended to disguise his identity, while the later shots capture the man at his happiest, among his loved ones, off-guard.

 

          Much of what we know about Sims’s ancestry and early childhood owes to the pioneering work of Lynn F. Myers, Jr. and Max Allan Collins, whose research has cleared up a great number of longstanding mysteries. I am grateful to Lisa Burks, a journalist and author working on the history of Glendale’s Grand View Memorial Park, who provided invaluable information about Sims/Ruric/Cain’s cremation records. I must also thank David A. Bowman, whose writing on Cain was nothing short of groundbreaking. Bowman’s work was interrupted by a terrible accident in 1989, from which he recovered. He continued to write fiction, but abandoned his biography of Cain. He passed away on February 27, 2012, at the age of 54.

Paul Cain / Peter Ruric, Peggy (Gregson), and their son Peter Craig. Gregson family home. Varina, Virginia. 1957.

Paul Cain / Peter Ruric, Peggy (Gregson), and their son Peter Craig. Gregson family home. Varina, Virginia. 1957.

Paul Cain / Peter Ruric, Peggy (Gregson), and their son Peter Craig. Gregson family home. Varina, Virginia. 1957.

Paul Cain / Peter Ruric, Peggy (Gregson), and their son Peter Craig. Gregson family home. Varina, Virginia. 1957. Copyright © 2012 Peggy, Michael Sean, and Peter Craig Harrelson. Published here for the first time from the Cain/Ruric/Harrelson family records, and the Black Mask Magazine archives.

 

Notes

 

1. Joseph Shaw, discarded introduction to The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1946), box 5, folder 6, of the Joseph T. Shaw Papers (2052), UCLA’s Young Research Library. Quoted more extensively in E. R. Hagemann, “Introducing Paul Cain and His Fast One: A Forgotten Hard-Boiled Writer, a Forgotten Gangster Novel,” Armchair Detective 12, no. 1 (January 1979): 75.
2. William Brandon, “Back in the Old Black Mask,” The Massachusetts Review 28, no. 4 (Winter 1987): 707.
3. Ibid., 708.
4. Joseph Shaw, “Greed, Crime, and Politics,” Black Mask (March 1931), 9. Quoted in Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976), 46.

5.
Irvin Faust, “Afterword,” in Fast One (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), 311.
6.
See Lynn F. Myers, Jr. and Max Allan Collins, “Chasing Shadows: The Life of Paul Cain,” in The Complete Slayers (Lakewood, CO: Centipede Press, 2011), 13-17, for information on Sims’s ancestry and early childhood.
7. Myers and Collins, 17; Los Angeles City Directory (1923), 2810.
8. Louis Adamic, Laughing in the Jungle: The Autobiography of an Immigrant in America (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1932), 218.
9. Los Angeles City Directory, 2810.
10. Myrna Loy and James Kotsilibas-Davis, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming (New York: Knopf, 1987), 42. See also Larry Carr, “Myrna Loy,” in More Fabulous Faces: The Evolution and Metamorphosis of Dolores Del Rio, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979), 55.

11. Tom Weaver, “Shirley Ulmer,” in I Was a Monster Movie Maker: Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001), 233.

12. Peter Bogdanovich, “Edgar G. Ulmer,” in Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors (New York: Knopf, 1997), 575.
13. David A. Bowman, “Cold Trail: The Life of Paul Cain,” in Fast One (Berkeley, CA: Black Lizard, 1987), vii. See also Dennis Fischer, “The Black Cat,” in Boris Karloff, ed. Gary J. Svehla and Susan Svehla (Baltimore: Midnight Marquee, 1996), 94-95.
14. Bowman, viii.
15. Ibid.
16. Myers and Collins, 29-30.
17. Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961), 727. See also ibid., 707.
18. Catalog of Copyright Entries. Third Series. Parts 3-4: Dramas and Works Prepared for Oral Delivery, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Library of Congress, Copyright Office, 1947), 206; Catalog of Copyright Entries. Third Series. Part 2: Periodicals, vol. 3 (Washington, D.C.: Copyright Office, Library of Congress, 1949), 76.

19. Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1937), 4.
20. Idem, “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them,” in What are Masterpieces (Los Angeles, CA: The Conference Press, 1940), 87.

21. Marcel Duhamel, Raconte pas ta vie (Paris: Mercure de France, 1972), 549-50.

22. Ibid., 549.

23. Ibid., 550.
24. Bowman, x.

25. Myers and Collins, 28.

26. Ibid., 22.

 

 

Works Consulted and Further Reading

 
Adamic, Louis. Laughing in the Jungle: The Autobiography of an Immigrant in America. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1932.

Ballard, Todhunter. “Writing for the Pulps.” In Hollywood Troubleshooter: W. T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox Stories, edited and introduced by James L. Traylor. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1985. Pp. 8-18.

Bogdanovich, Peter. “Edgar G. Ulmer.” In Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1997. Pp. 558-604.

Bowman, David A. “Cold Trail: The Life of Paul Cain.” In Fast One. Berkeley, CA: Black Lizard, 1987.

Brandon, William. “Back in the Old Black Mask.” The Massachusetts Review 28, no. 4 (Winter 1987): 706-16.

Carr, Larry. “Myrna Loy.” In More Fabulous Faces: The Evolution and Metamorphosis of Dolores Del Rio, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Pp. 53-108.

Duhamel, Marcel. Raconte pas ta vie. Paris: Mercure de France, 1972.

Faust, Irvin.
“Afterword.” In Fast One. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978. Pp. 305-16.

Fischer
, Dennis. “The Black Cat.” In Boris Karloff. Edited by Gary J. Svehla and Susan Svehla. Baltimore: Midnight Marquee, 1996. Pp. 91-113.

Gunn, Peter. “Paul Cain, 1902-1966.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 306: American Mystery and Detective Writers. Edited by George Parker Anderson. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2005. Pp. 35-43.

Hagemann, E. R. “Introducing Paul Cain and His Fast One: A Forgotten Hard-Boiled Writer, a Forgotten Gangster Novel.” Armchair Detective 12, no. 1 (January 1979): 72-76.

Haut, Woody. “The Postman Rings Twice but the Iceman Walks Right in: Paul Cain and James. M. Cain.” In Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood. London: Serpent's Tail, 2002. Pp. 76-101.

Loy, Myrna, and James Kotsilibas-Davis. Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming. New York: Knopf, 1987.

MacShane, Frank. The Life of Raymond Chandler. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976.


Myers, Lynn F., Jr. and Max Allan Collins. “Chasing Shadows: The Life of Paul Cain.” In The Complete Slayers. Lakewood, CO: Centipede Press, 2011. Pp. 9-32. This volume also carries introductions to individual stories by Ed Gorman, Joe Gores, Edward D. Hoch, John Lutz, and Bill Pronzini, Robert Randisi, and others.

Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.


Shaw, Joseph. “Greed, Crime, and Politics.” Black Mask (March 1931).


Stein, Gertrude. Everybody’s Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1937.

—. “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them.” In What are Masterpieces (Los Angeles, CA: The Conference Press, 1940). Pp. 83-95.

Weaver, Tom. “Shirley Ulmer.” In I Was a Monster Movie Maker: Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. Pp. 227-49.


Wilt, David E. “Paul Cain.” In Hardboiled in Hollywood. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991. 97-120.