Jack Clark's 'Nobody's Angel,' a thriller about a Chicago cab driver
By Jack Clark
Hard Case Crime. 219 pp. Paperback, $7.99
There are two interesting things about Jack Clark's "Nobody's Angel." The first is how it came to be. Clark was a Chicago cabdriver for almost 30 years. In the early 1990s he wrote a novel about the taxi business, and after rejections from several publishers, he self-published 500 copies and sold them to passengers for $5. Now, thanks to Hard Case Crime, which specializes in reprinting classic and neglected noir fiction, his novel has its first professional publication. (Eventually, a lawyer to whom he gave a ride agreed to serve as his agent, and another of Clark's novels, "Westerfield's Chain," was published in 2002 and nominated for a Shamus award.)
The second interesting thing is that -- no matter what you might expect from a novel by a cabdriver -- "Nobody's Angel" is a gem. For what it is, it's just about perfect. I won't urge would-be novelists to forsake their writing classes and become hackers, but they would do well to read Clark's story, which doesn't contain a wasted word or a false note. Summed up briefly, for Clark's cabbies the world is largely divided into two groups: the passengers who stiff them -- i.e., leave no tip or a tiny one -- and those who want to kill them for the cash in their pockets. The novel, one must note, will strike some readers as politically incorrect because almost all the drivers we meet, both white and black, avoid picking up black passengers or venturing into Chicago's huge, mostly black housing projects.
Our narrator, Eddie Miles, is middle-aged, divorced, hard-working, cynical and not terribly happy. His ex-wife won't let his daughter speak to him. He has sex on weekends with a woman who lives in his dingy apartment house, but otherwise his only friends are his fellow cabbies. They often meet when the shifts change to drink coffee and retell old stories, like the driver who claims to have charged an eccentric Brit $12,000 for a ride from Chicago to London, which was achieved with the help of an ocean liner.
Because Eddie works nights, he encounters a lot of drunks, often obnoxious men who insult him, and women who come on to him. All he really wants is their money. Offered a tip of two dimes on a $12 ride, he says, "Thanks, pal. I'll buy the kid a shoelace." After an unpleasant exchange with a fare, he reflects, "Everybody wants a driver who speaks English until you actually say something." He advises a new driver, with reference to certain housing projects, "Don't go too far south. Don't go anywhere west. Be careful when you go north."
The rookie asks, "What about east?"
"Can you swim?" Eddie replies.
Much of the novel simply shows Eddie at work, interacting with passengers and reflecting on Chicago. He loves the city and is nostalgic for its earlier, less gentrified days. Here Eddie returns to a neighborhood where his family once lived but left after race riots: "We were in the center of the riot zone now. There was nothing but rubble for blocks. But I could still detect the faint scent of charred wood decades after the last ember had died. I knew the smell was just a trick of memory but all the same there I was standing on the roof of the building my father loved so much. We were watching the smoke from the riot drift over our heads."
In one fine episode, Eddie reluctantly drives a wealthy white man to a shabby, now-black bar he'd patronized in his youth. It's past midnight, and Eddie fears for his life, but the two white men are greeted warmly by the black owner and patrons, and they drink and talk for hours. It would help, in reading this novel, to know Chicago's streets and neighborhoods as well as Clark does, but the poignancy of his view of the city still comes across.
The novel's plot concerns two crimes. In one, Eddie finds a teenage black streetwalker all but dead in an alley. He calls the police and holds her hand until they arrive, and the girl calls him her "angel." Later, he visits her in the hospital and tries to find the man who mutilated her and left her for dead. The other plot involves the murder of three white cabbies, one of them Eddie's best friend. Here, too, Eddie plays detective and almost gets himself killed. These crimes add suspense and realism to the novel, but its real beauty lies in Eddie's bittersweet existence and the special romance and danger of the cabdriver's life -- lives we often glimpse but rarely give a second thought.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post.