NYRB Noir: "Black Wings Has My Angel" by Elliot Chaze
Elliott Chaze was among several pulp novelists published by the short-lived Gold Medal Books in the 1950s. Noted for its output of original material exclusively in paperback form -- to the irritation of publishers who considered such marketing tactics a threat to the standard practice of releasing material in hardcover form months in advance of a paperback release -- Gold Medal counted pulp luminaries David Goodis, Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, and Richard Matheson among its roster. While these novelists have long been eulogized in slick editions (with a Goodis collection published by the Library of America in 2012), Chaze has remained under the radar, ostensibly for his relatively meager output when held against his wildly prolific contemporaries (he published only nine novels, not all of which were in the crime genre). New York Review Books has reissued Black Wings Has My Angel, reprinted for the first time since its original publication in 1954, and generally considered the best of his pulp noir novels.
Like the greatest crime fiction, the plot of Black Wings takes a back seat to narrative structure, made (almost) great through tight, lucid storytelling where Chaze's years as a newspaperman come across in a curt economy of prose. Freshly escaped from prison, Kenneth McClure treats himself to a hot bath and a remarkably well-spoken "ten dollar tramp" named Virginia who, within the space of two hundred pages, proves his undoing. (Somewhere within noir's dark, alternate reality exists a formula wherein a woman's icy beauty, sexual insatiability, and lack of backstory lie in direct correlation to the amount of grief a man will endure at her hands.)
Upon his escape, Kenneth concocts a heist that he has every intention of carrying out alone, but this proves impossible. Fate, as they say, has other plans, and this is a two-person job. Having lost his would-be crew in the messy jailbreak, with the grisly image of the plan's mastermind shot through the mouth by prison guards haunting Kenneth's dreams throughout the story, his bloody, gaping maw gargling advice, Kenneth assumes the tough-guy nom de guerre of Tim Sunblade and throws in his chips with Virginia. His new, accidental companion values money -- and the things it can buy -- even more than he does, and while he's not so keen on the idea of a partner, her company is hard to resist, and besides, he needs her to compete the job. "Most of living is waiting to live," Kenneth observes early in the novel, and we get the feeling that, freed from confinement and dubiously partnered, he can finally begin in earnest.
The narrative flies at a rapid clip with circumstances bouncing the couple from Mississippi to Colorado's Cripple Creek and the Denver suburbs, down to New Orleans and back again. For all of his plodding, criminal wiles, Kenneth cannot shake Virginia's growing hold on him. (Can this be love?) Nor can he avoid suspicious eyes at every turn, the relentless paranoia that accompanies the preliminaries leading up to the heist, the brutality at the hands of sadistic, finger-breaking cops, or the FBI agent who originally put him away for "borrowing other people's automobiles." The revelation that Kenneth had been been imprisoned for car theft consists of exactly one sentence, but speaks volumes to how far he is willing to advance his criminal career with Virginia at his side.
Somewhere within noir's dark, alternate reality exists a formula wherein a woman's icy beauty, sexual insatiability, and lack of backstory lie in direct correlation to the amount of grief a man will endure at her hands
Formulaic, instantly forgettable plots and procedurals will always dominate the literary subset filed under "Mystery." But within the genre's most enduring works, plot details and whodunit build-ups yield to a writer's style and expository voice, the tone of which puts atmosphere, suspense, and the author's distinctive brand of nihilism in collusion to make true noir. Here, the atmosphere of desperation and dubious morality create a mindset shared by the reader for the story's duration, and this is the quality that makes crime noir as a genre so difficult to pin down. Its greatest practitioners remain unclassifiable, with their unique world outlook filtered through an individual philosophy of nihilism and despair. To dwell on the story would be to miss the intended mark, and to directly compare Chaze with his contemporaries is dangerous. The true narrative voice of the pulp noir (Hammet's obdurate Sam Spade; Chandler's insouciant, philosophizing Philip Marlowe; Thompson's unreliable, amoral roughnecks; Goodis's hapless, tormented killers and second-story men) and plot devices (the spontaneous or accidental murders used by Highsmith to jumpstart plot, or James M. Cain's combination of raw lust and legal logistics) function within a writer's own uniquely corrupt, apathetic world. When reading noir, we step into a realm governed by a deeply personal philosophy of morality and evil.
So where does Chaze fit in, and what sort of morality comprises the outlook he puts forth? For all the sordid double-crossings and body counts that make up the cornerstones of the genre, it is rare (and usually rather boring) to meet a wholly immoral protagonist. Instead, circumstances come down to tough decisions wherein murder is a necessary evil to scoring that big payday, or at least to staying alive. Chaze uses the lurid, redoubtable device of the femme fatale -- who may or may not be wholly immoral -- to drive the protagonist to make bad decisions and take absurd risks through her bewitching sexuality. For all his two-fisted wiles and his smart mouth, Kenneth is helpless in the face of Virginia, and it is this weakness that is ultimately the measure of the man. We know that this unrequited devotion renders him pathetic, as does the exhaustive plotting that foments his paranoia or the brutal beatings he receives at the hands of the cops. Our sympathies steadily develop until we are invested in the success of Kenneth's violent crime, and our concern for the safety of innocent civilians is trumped by our hope for his success.
In keeping with the pulp-noir archetype of the femme fatale as cunning and elusive, Virginia is both emotionally ambivalent and wholly unreliable. While so much of the genre's content depends upon blonde bombshells wantonly pulling strings and inciting strife and mistrust, such divisive figures frequently remain two dimensional, and Chaze's Virginia feels flat (figuratively speaking -- in the literal sense she's stacked, as Kenneth frequently reminds us). Like the Phantom Ladies of Goodis and Cornell Woolrich, Virginia wears her avarice on her sleeve, making it plain from the start that she is not to be trusted. Perhaps if Black Wings had been written under less vigilant censorship, we would get the full effect of Virginia's sex-soaked femininity through graphic descriptions of her seductive artfulness and breezy anatomy. But a reader can only be told so many times what a knockout she is, and the cautiously prurient, censor-skirting allusions get repetitive.
The inception of the modern femme fatale, steeped as it is in misogyny, can count among its progenitors writers like Zola, Strindberg, and Wilkie Collins, as well as artists like Edvard Munch, Felician Rops, and a renewed interest among artists at the turn of the twentieth century in depictions of Salome (a trend not accidentally concomitant with the rise of syphilis). But in the dark world of pulp noir, she is too often relegated to a mere plot device. This is true even among some of the genre's greatest, such as certain works by Cornell Woolwich and Goodis. (Rare exceptions can be found in James M. Cain's Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, as well as Chandler, where the avaricious, devouring female is both layered, complex, and occasionally a great lay.) Happily, Black Wings contains moments where even the tamped-down, 1950s version of Virginia's unabashed raunch thrills and titillates. The image of the naked Virginia rolling wildly in a pile of stolen bills is not easily forgotten, and was lifted directly by the French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette who applied the scene to the titular character of his 1980 novel Fatale. To use Cain as a prime example, the most believable femmes fatale are the products of third-person narratives, particularly in the rare instances where the woman is the protagonist. Most first-person accounts from male narrators become fuzzy with personal investment and drift into platitudes that, while visually poignant in the hands of a true talent (Chaze describes Virginia's dress "as if it had been smeared on her"), are still platitudes.
We stumble away from Black Wings as from a carnival ride full of speeding twists and perilous drops, but hardly shocked by its end: like the most harrowing of rides, the bar lifts and we resume life in a dazed high that we know will soon fade. In the same manner, the denouement of Black Wings seems preordained -- we see it coming, perhaps not in its exact manifestation, but we've known where things have been heading for quite some time. This in itself is not a condemnation, as we have considered that even the best crime writing is subject to formula. However, we grasp a writer's worldview much more keenly from a body of work, where the sum is, if not greater, at least more clarifying than the parts. If Chandler had only written Farewell, My Lovely, we would still have an enduring work of genius, but would lack the greater understanding of Marlowe's (and therefore Chandler's) ideals of morality and solitude that make him one of the enduring wayfarers of modern literature. Do we have a cohesive grasp of Chaze's philosophy of evil that comprises his particular brand of noir nihilism? While Barry Gifford's rather touching anecdote in the introduction to the present edition gives us a sense of Chaze as a likable, if not lovable, curmudgeon, we still don't have a firm grasp on him or his work, especially as he worked in more than one genre. What we have in the end is an expertly crafted yarn that whets the appetite for more reissues of Chaze: his intentionally muddled, commingled mood of desperation and apathy with taut suspense is delivered in matter-of-fact prose, adding immediacy to otherwise rote material, fairly soiled as it is with the seductive, inevitable sense of impending doom that strings us along despite the certainty that things cannot end well.
Published by New York Review of Books, 224 pages
This review originally appeared in Bookslut