“The streets were dark with something more than night.” – Raymond Chandler
A mystery man of noms de plume and pseudonyms, Paul Cain, otherwise known as Peter Ruric, a successful screenwriter born George Carrol Sims in Des Moines, Iowa (1902-1966), got as much cavalier and cryptic mileage as he could out of his shifting identities and pulp quality over quantity. To a writer seeking biographical information, Cain sent a curriculum vitae in which he claimed to be a former Dada painter, boatswain’s mate, and gynecologist. After the 1940s, Cain drifted to Europe, eking out an expatriate’s existence on the Spanish island of Majorca.
Squeezed in between the artistry and eking, Cain, when not drinking and brawling and screenwriting in Hollywood as Ruric, was crafting crime stories for Black Mask, beginning with “Fast One” in 1932 and followed by four more dark tales about the urban American underworld featuring Gerry Kells, a gambler and World War I vet addicted to morphine who sets off a gang war in Prohibition-era Los Angeles. When the five stories were revised and collected in novel form as Fast One in 1934, the New York Times called it "a ceaseless welter of bloodshed and frenzy, a sustained bedlam of killing and fiendishness," while Raymond Chandler praised it as “some kind of high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner.”
Along the same latter lines, the taut yet elaborate and unpredictable “Pigeon Blood” — first published in the November 1933 issue of Black Mask and one of seven stories collected in 1946’s Seven Slayers — is set in motion as a case of murder, missing rubies, and insurance fraud bubbles over, simmering with intrigue as a Park Avenue millionaire’s wife, Mrs. Dale Hanan, lets her gambling weakness and consequent debts to a gangster overwhelm her life.
Dale Hanan, separated from his wife but looking to help her (with suspect strings attached), hires the high-priced and highly regarded Mr. Druse, an astute and ideal functionary positioned midway between the law and the underworld — not a fixer mind you, but “one who seek[s] to further justice.” “I mean real justice as opposed to book justice,” he explains. “I was on the Bench for many years and I realize the distinction keenly.”
And it is immediately clear that Druse is more than just a well-paid intermediary between the Hanans, together and individually, and the bad guys. He works hard for the money — which certainly adds to the suspense and puts some more twists and turns on the twists and turns — and anticipates the deviousness of both cons and clients. Always a good idea to get your money in advance and deceive the paying customer if you have to by lying to them about where the nonexistent bodies are buried.
Cain often has an economical way in compressing his gift for characterization, theme, and sharp-edged and toughened dialogue. At one point Druse brings his work home with him to his sprawling 45th story Manhattan penthouse apartment, with a tiled floor that comes to an abrupt end. Danger is his business — and his pastime, too, apparently — as Mrs. Hanan, admiring the literally, if not forebodingly, breathtaking view from the rooftop, finds out when she tells him before he goes back out on the job, “It is very beautiful”:
- “I am glad you find it so. I have never put a railing here,” he said, “because I am so interested in Death. Whenever I’m depressed I look at my jumping-off place, only a few feet away, and am reminded that life is very sweet.” He stared at the edge, stroked the side of his jaw with his fingers. “Nothing to climb over, no windows to raise — just walk.”
She smiled wryly. “A moralist — and morbid. Did you bring me here to suggest a suicide pact?”
“I brought you here to sit still and be decorative.”
“I’m going hunting.”
After all, it is a jungle out there.