Back in 2012, I reviewed John Connolly and Declan Burke’s “Books to Die For ,” a collection of essays subtitled “The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels.” In it, Bill Pronzini spoke so eloquently about Elliott Chaze’s “Black Wings Has My Angel ” that I immediately ordered a copy from Stark House, which published the 1953 noir masterpiece in a utilitarian paperback coupled with Bruce Elliott’s “ One Is a Lonely Number.” I stashed the book away for some future vacation.
But when this stylish new edition of Chaze’s novel appeared earlier this year, I — no fool — seized the chance to add it to my regular Thursday review schedule. Given that New York Review Books had already brought out William Lindsay Gresham’s “Nightmare Alley ” — for which no praise is too great — and many of Georges Simenon’s “hard novels,” including “Dirty Snow ,” my expectations were pretty high. After I read Barry Gifford’s introduction, they grew even higher. The onetime editor of Black Lizard Books — instrumental in the 1980s rediscovery of noir fiction — likened Chaze to Jim Thompson and David Goodis as an author of the “psychologically provocative” and the “uncompromising, cruel, crazy, sexy, and daring.”
On the first page of “Black Wings Has My Angel” we learn that our narrator — he uses the name Tim Sunblade — has been working on a drilling rig for 16 weeks and has just been paid. He’s luxuriating in the bathtub of a cheap hotel when his doorbell rings. Quickly wrapping a towel around his waist, he opens the door onto a flea-bitten corridor. The bellhop says, “Here she is.” Tim’s next words might have been scripted for a wistful, Robert Mitchum voice-over in “Out of the Past”:
“And there she was. I’ll always remember the first time I saw her, standing there in the half-gloom of the corridor . . . Her eyes were lavender-gray and her hair was light creamy gold and springy-looking, hugging her head in curves rather than absolute curls.” Her skin was “the color of pearls melted in honey.”
A real looker, all right, but there’s also a puzzling sophistication and poise to Virginia — that’s the name she gives — and she’s hardly your typical 10-dollar prostitute. Impulsively, Tim persuades her to come along on his drive to Colorado. Halfway there, she tries to steal his bankroll and he is forced to slug the treacherous little tramp. Tim is surprised by the giddy, unrestrained lovemaking that follows:
“We spent the night in Pueblo and it was a night I like to think about, especially now that my time is so short. . . . Twenty-seven years is not very many years to have lived. When I get to thinking like that, the memory of the night in Pueblo is a kind of tonic. After all, no matter how long you live, there aren’t too many really delicious moments along the way, since most of life is spent eating and sleeping and waiting for something to happen that never does. You can figure it up for yourself, using your own life as the scoreboard. Most of living is waiting to live. And you spend a great deal of time worrying about things that don’t matter and about people that don’t matter and all this is clear to you when you know the very day you’re going to die.”
Tim turns out to be more than he seems initially, having worked his way through Washington and Lee University, then spent time in both the military and Parchman prison in Mississippi, where he learned from a fellow inmate, now dead, the perfect way to steal a whole lot of money. Tim explains his plan to Virginia, and before you know it, they have settled in Denver, passing themselves off as a young married couple.
Much happens that I won’t describe here, but the partners in crime eventually find themselves living at the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans and partying with a rich, decadent crowd. It doesn’t take long for Tim to tire of expensive toys and fancy clothes. “I had so much stuff I couldn’t concentrate on any of it long enough to enjoy it, so I became sick of all of it.” Worse still, “I was sick of Virginia, too, and of what the money had done to both of us, changing a tough, elegant adventuress with plenty of guts and imagination into a candy-tonguing country club Cleopatra who nested in bed the whole day long.”
Will the two lovers fall out? Will one betray the other? Feeling a sentimental impulse to see his home town again, Tim drags a reluctant Virginia along, just as the novel starts to accelerate in a new and even darker direction.
“Black Wings Has My Angel” never flags in creating uneasiness, especially given Virginia’s quicksilver changeability. Throughout, Chaze’s sentences are lean and brisk, while the scenes he sets in roadside bars, a sheet-metal factory and the Colorado mountains are especially well done. Still, what remains unforgettable is his lovers’ cat-and-mouse relationship, as high-voltage as the one depicted in James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Everything — murder, betrayal, self-sacrifice, great physical and psychological suffering — ultimately comes to seem trivial compared with the visceral intensity connecting Tim and Virginia. Their ardor even nearly redeems them. Alas, in noir fiction, no one ever escapes the past or gets to live happily ever after.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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By Elliott Chaze
New York Review Books. 209 pp. Paperback, $12.95