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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Black Wings Has My Angel

Regular readers of this blog know that I love me some noir. It's my favorite film genre, and good noir makes for a an excellent read. However, not everybody is Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain. Elliott Chaze, in his 1953 novel, Black Wings Has My Angel, has the style but not the substance. The prose crackles, but the plot is a bit loose. I appreciated that I had no idea where the book was going, but was let down by the ending.

The narrator is Tim Sunblade, who has just finished work on an oil rig and has some money burning in his pocket. He heads into a small Louisiana town and gets himself a hooker, Virginia, but she's far too attractive to be working in a little Podunk. "At the time I had no more idea of falling in love with her than I had of making a meal of the big yellow cake of soap in the Victorian bathroom."

But fall in love they do, and head to Colorado. There are some bumps along the way, such as when she tries to steal his money or when she runs off with another guy. But they have in common the lust for money, and plan an armored car robbery together.

Black Wings Has My Angel is a short book, but might have worked better as a novella. The crime doesn't take place until halfway through the book, and after that the story meanders. I don't want to spoil the ending, but Virginia isn't the femme fatale the book title purports her to be. Also, the cover, though a great pulp novel illustration, has nothing to do with what's inside the book.

Chaze has read his Chandler though, and knows how to describe a dame: "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 her 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."

Sunblade is also a classic example of the antihero, a man who commits evil but is tormented by it: "I was going downtown to kill a man who hadn't done a damned thing to me, to kill an old guy whose only fault as far as I knew was throwing chewing gum wrappers in the street. I was going to kill him because I wanted money more than I wanted him to live and I was going to kill him filthily."

There are also interesting takes on subjects, such as Virginia's views on gentlemen: "'I want to make it plain as the nose on your face. I can stand anything in the book but gentlemen. Because I've spent a lot of time, too much time with them, and I know why gentlemen are what they are. They decide to be that way after they've tried all the real things and flopped at them. They've flopped at women. They've flopped at standing up their hind legs and acting like men. So they become gentlemen.'"

The novel does have some unfortunate signs of its time, such as referring to a black woman as a "Zulu" and its general misogyny.

I wanted to like this book more, but it's really just so-so. A film adaptation with Tom Hiddleston and Anna Paquin seems to have been permanently shelved.

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