If Hammett, Chandler, and the Cains were baseball players
Here's what I meant: If all four were baseball players, Hammett and Chandler would be Babe Ruth or Honus Wagner, pioneers of staggering and lasting accomplishment whose achievements arguably dwarf those of their successors. Paul Cain is Shoeless Joe Jackson, an awesome talent kept out of the Hall of Fame by a career quirk (Jackson's involvement in the Black Sox scandal; Cain's tiny, though absolutely first-rate, output).
Bur James M. Cain is something like Candy Cummings, a nineteenth-century pitcher of modest career statistics who made the Hall of Fame because he was credited with inventing the curveball. That's probably hard on Cain, but you get the idea: As important an innovator as he was in sexual frankness and portrayal of doomed characters, his successors did it better.
Acknowledging that I've read less of his work than I have of Chandler's or Hammett's, the most I can grant James M. Cain is the status of a trailblazer surpassed by later, greater achievements by others. I find The Getaway's doomed lovers on the road to hell fresher and more chilling than those in The Postman Always Rings Twice, for example.
One could argue, on the other hand, that Hammett and Chandler remain unsurpassed at the things they did best.
© Peter Rozovsky 2012