Friday, August 10, 2012

Forgotten Books: Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze (Soon to be a Major Motion Picture)

Can a 1952 Gold Medal original be considered literary fiction?

No way, I thought. But that was before I read Black Wings Has My Angel. Now I’m just sitting here stunned by the power of this guy’s prose.

There’s no denying this is a crime novel. Along the way, our escaped convict protagonist and his black-winged angel commit a brutal murder, pull off an elaborate armored car heist and stage a jailbreak. But Elliott Chaze refused to let that stuff get in the way of his writing. He just turned his fingers loose on the typewriter and made magic.

In a way, it’s too bad Black Wings Has My Angel was written way back in ‘52, because back then readers and publishers didn’t really know what to do with a book like this. Today, they’d know exactly what to do with it: they’d give it an Edgar nomination for Best Novel of the year.

The story revolves around a love-hate relationship between our narrator - an ex-POW, ex-con on a mission to pull off a spectacular crime - and a blue-blooded call girl with a cash register for a heart. As hard as they try to be rid of each other - and they try plenty hard - they keep crashing back together. And somehow, you just know that all roads lead to ruin.

Here’s a sample of Chaze’s prose:

     In Dallas I got turned around somehow, and drove out though a plush Home-and-Garden-Club kind of neighborhood, where all the houses were of long thin wafers of Roman brick or blotchy fieldstone and were set far back from the road, their picture windows shining like gold foil in the late sun. We passed what must have been some kind of club, and there were limber-legged young kids on a strip of fine clay, striking brand-new white tennis balls with a beautiful laziness, their expensively coached strokes almost indolent. Then we came out of that part of town and there were some grubby youngsters batting an old gray ball around a gray asphalt court, a public one with ragged chicken-wire backstops. These kids played aggressively, jumpy and fast, the movements ugly and determined. They beat the ball as if they were killing a snake.
     “It’s funny,” she said to me, “they can be playing the same game and yet an altogether different one. It’s the money.”
     “Everything stinks without the money.”
     “Almost everything.”
     “Some day I’m going to wallow in it again. I’m going to strip down buck naked and bathe in cool green hundred-dollar bills.”

When I read that passage early in the book, the tennis scenes were so vivid that the stuff about bathing in money didn’t make much of an impression. Much later, though, I had cause to remember it. And it struck me that Chaze must have been a Carl Barks fan. Because when the bathing-in-bills scene rolls around, it’s straight out of Uncle Scrooge:

I saw the light inside the armored car, glowing in slitted shapes through the steel. The rustling was louder.
     She was sitting on the floor naked, in a skitter of green bills. Beyond her was the custodian, still simpering in death. She was scooping up handfuls of the green money and dropping it on top of her head so that it came sliding down along the cream-colored hair, slipping down along shoulders and body. She was making a noise I never heard come out of a human being. It was a scream that was a whisper and a laugh that was a cry. Over and over. The noise and the scooping. The slippery, sliding bills against the rigid body.
     She didn’t know I was alive. 

A British edition with a jazzier cover.

The word on the ‘net is that a movie version is in the works with Tim Huddleston (Loki from Thor and The Avengers) and Anna Paquin in the lead roles, and Elijah Wood playing someone named Eddie. I don’t remember an Eddie from the book, so don't know what Wood is doing there, except adding star power. The film is targeted for a 2013 release.

The Gold Medal edition of this novel is mighty hard to find, but Stark House has made it readily available, paired with Bruce Elliott’s noir thriller, One is a Lonely Number, which I reviewed on Wednesday (that’s HERE). I was impressed with One is a Lonely Number, and recommend it highly. But Black Wings Has My Angel is even better. They make a dynamite pair. But wait! You also get words of wisdom from misters Gorman and Crider! The Stark House Double is HERE.

More Forgotten Books at Sweet Freedom.


Anonymous said...

Always good to see someone else bowled over by Black Wings.

All you say is pretty much spot-on, but I want to add that the book's conclusion was as intense and overpowering as one of the better Jim Thompsons. I set the book down and found I could barely get out of my chair.

Black Wings has really acquired a reputation among noir fans, and it's easy to see why those who haven't been fortunate enough to read it might think that rep was exaggerated. After all, the best book always seems to be the one that you can't get.
But Black Wings very much deserves its reputation. It's a little masterpiece.

John Hocking

Oscar Case said...

Nice covers, too.