Black Wings Has My Angel
Over 50 years after the heyday of noir fiction, reading it can be an exercise in cliché immersion. Slippery dames, con men on the lam — these tropes have become so intertwined with the genre that even when reading aces like Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, it’s sometimes hard to make out individual characters and their unique circumstances among the familiar, seedy haze of the noir universe. Enter Black
Wings Has My Angel, Elliott Chaze’s recently reissued 1953 masterpiece. In it, an escaped convict who calls himself Timothy Sunblade cooks up the heist of his life with Virginia, a lavender-eyed former call girl who will betray any man for an extra dollar. With that plot, Chaze plants his story securely in the noir firmament, but Timothy and Virginia soar off the page, and their predicament stays with the reader long after the gruesome grand finale.
It’s fitting that author Barry Gifford has written the introduction to this lost gem. He created Sailor and Lula, the sexy star-crossed duo who rose to notoriety in the 1990 David Lynch film adaptation of Gifford’s novel Wild at Heart, and whose modern-day chemistry is matched by the aggressive heat between Timothy and Virginia. They meet in a flea-bitten hotel on Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River, where Timothy takes a break from roughnecking on an oil rig to hire a “ten-dollar tramp.” He gets Virginia, whose posh manners and expensive clothes betray her as a woman of the world, on the run and on the take. To the strains of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time,” the two get to know each other. Pretty soon they’ve blown town together and are speeding westward in Timothy’s blue Packard, the kernel of a plan developing in his larcenous mind.
The electric quality of Chaze’s prose elevates these common lovers to sublime status. The author is aware of his chosen genre’s tendency toward tacky chestnuts, making good fun of it: “Her skirt was gray flannel and it fitted as if it had been smeared on her, and below it were the legs. You hear and read about legs. But when you see the really good ones, you know the things you read and heard were a lot of trash.” But though Timothy’s voice is jaded, he can be earnest in describing the beauty he encounters — in women and in the natural landscape. As the Packard winds north through the Raton Pass to Denver, Timothy philosophizes about the differences between the vistas of the South and the West: “Out West all the smells are sucked up out of the baked land by the sun. And it’s as if all the colors in the ground are gobbled up by their sunsets, and so is the blue of the sky. The sky is high and pale and impersonal and you get the feeling it doesn’t belong to you at all, but that it is the property of the chamber of commerce. In the South the sky is humid and low and rich and it’s yours to smell and feel. In the West you’re only an observer.”
The exquisite writing is surprisingly contemporary, which makes it hard not to get sucked into this violent, vintage world, even if the plot strains credulity at times. In Denver, Timothy and Virginia rent a house and pose as a young middle-class couple as they prepare to carry out a robbery with a life-changing payoff. Their imitation of 1950s suburban inanity is a sly parody; every evening they’re “watering and watering the lawn in the dusk, each night making the traditional Denver mudpie out front of the mousey brick bungalow. Respectability all over the place.”
With Virginia, Chaze creates a fully formed female foil to Timothy; her duplicity and criminal innovations rival Timothy’s own, and her vicious, unpredictable nature stands out as even more powerful and mysterious than he can fathom. One thing’s for sure: He’s got it bad, and the novel peaks with the fatalistic lyricism he uses to sing her praises. The couple engage more than once in domestic violence, but Virginia gives as good as she gets. The reader never feels, as with some noir novels, that the woman is reduced to a fetish object — Virginia is, make no mistake, as trigger-happy and greed-driven as Timothy. In a memorable jail scene, Virginia comes up with the idea to communicate an escape plan to Timothy as the two are singing Sunday hymns with the other prisoners: “I had to listen sharp to get any of what she sang to me. The word ‘murder’ sounds odd in a hymn. So does ‘gun.’ ”
Black Wings Has My Angel is fiendishly paced, hurtling toward its ultra-cinematic denouement, which involves an abandoned Cripple Creek mine shaft called the Katie Llewellyn. The book is rife with minor yet indelible details and characters that would be throwaway for another writer, and it’s no wonder that Gifford’s introduction describes Chaze as “a disciple of Hemingway. … Like Hemingway, he was a newspaperman — the five Ws (who, what, where, when, why) were his commandments.” Chaze, who died in 1990, published 10 novels, worked for the Associated Press in New Orleans and Denver, and served for 10 years as the city editor for the Hattiesburg American. He clearly knew the power of a good story, but more importantly, he had the style, in spades, to tell it with. This demonic artifact is the real deal; with its reemergence, fans of both pulp and literary fiction have reason to rejoice. — Molly Boyle