Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

First published in 1953, Black Wings Has My Angel is now regarded as something of a noir fiction classic, aided no doubt by the publication of the NYRB Classics edition at the beginning of 2016. As a novel, it has all the hallmarks of a top-flight noir: a damaged soul driven by lust, desire, frustration and greed; a manipulative femme fatale who turns out to be more rapacious and unhinged than the protagonist himself; and an unstable situation that proves a catalyst for their ultimate self-destruction.

Chaze’s novel is narrated by a man who calls himself Tim Sunblade, a small-time con on the run following a breakout from Parchman Penitentiary, Mississippi. Having amassed some ready cash by roughnecking it on a drilling rig in the Atchafalaya River for a few months, Tim is just about set to hit the road for Denver where he hopes to make a big killing. His ultimate aim is to carry out a heist on an armoured vehicle full of cash, a plan originally hatched by Jeepie, a fellow inmate at Parchman who was shot during the escape.

As the novel opens, Tim is relaxing in the bath in some two-bit hotel in Louisiana when the bellhop brings him a ten-dollar prostitute for the night, a shapely number by the name of Virginia. But, as we soon discover, Virginia is no ordinary small-town hooker; she’s a classy lady, leggy and beautiful – ‘a slender, poised thing with skin the colour of pearls melted in honey’. It’s pretty clear that Virginia is somewhat out of place in this joint. There are hints of money about her person – good clothes, expensive-looking luggage, and a general desire for the high life. If truth be told, Virginia is actually a five-hundred-dollar-a-night call girl on the run from a messy situation in New York, something involving the city’s District Attorney – a revelation that emerges a little later in the story. At this stage in the game, Tim knows that something is up; he just doesn’t know what exactly. Nevertheless, after a few days of wild sex, he finds himself attracted to Virginia, so he decides to take her on the road with him, at least for a while.

Going across the Red River bridge, I sailed my Mississippi tags over the iron railing and saw them hit the water with a splash, forty feet below. She watched me, leaning back in her padded-leather corner, smoking quietly. Nothing seemed to surprise her: the car, the tags, the business of taking an unchartered trip with an unknown man. The wind whipped her bright hair the way it does in the soft-drink advertisements, co-operatively, beautifully. The cross-stripes of tar on the white highway thumped faster and faster beneath the wheels until the thumping became a buzzing. The air was soft, yet not dead. And over all of it lay the very good feeling of going somewhere. (p. 13)

At first, Tim convinces himself that he’s going to dump Virginia at a filling station on the way to Denver – a woman like her is always going to attract a lot of attention, and that’s the last thing he needs if he’s going to get away with the heist. But the robbery is a two-person job, and he needs an accomplice to pull it off. So, after a few cat fights along the way, Tim decides that Virginia is cool enough and tough enough to help him out with the raid. Plus, by this point, he’s fallen for her, which means there’s more than one reason to keep her around.

On their arrival in Colorado, the pair begin to make plans. They rent a house in a decent neighbourhood in Denver where they pose as newlyweds, just an ordinary, respectable couple going about their business like any other. Tim gets a job in a sheet metal plant, a role that gives him access to the tools and other resources he needs to prepare for the heist. On his days off work, he follows the bank’s armoured car, monitoring its movements in detail to establish the driver’s routine when making the pickups. By doing so, Tim uncovers a habit that the driver’s sidekick has fallen into, something that will give him an ‘in’ when it comes to pulling the heist.

Meanwhile, back at the house, Virginia is getting impatient, eager as she is to get her hands on the money with the aim of hightailing out of Denver, away from the monotony of a life posing as a contented housewife. As a consequence, she begins to turn up the heat on Tim…

All of a sudden I was mad and sick. I loathed the sound of the knife on the oilstone. I wanted to throw it in her face and get out of the car and start running, anywhere, just running. […] 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. Or maybe I wasn’t. Maybe he was going to kill me and go on the rest of his life with the gum wrappers. I know now that I would have probably backed out of it if it hadn’t been for Virginia and the desire to remain a big bad lad in her eyes. Anyway, I didn’t want any mushy farewell business with Virginia, no sentimental sendoff. Not for a thing like this. (p. 115)

I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Tim and Virginia’s story doesn’t end with the heist. In a gripping denouement, two cruel twists of fate come together, developments that ultimately prove to be the couple’s undoing. It’s as if Tim and Virginia are chasing a dream that will never bring them any real happiness or sense of satisfaction in life, a dream as hollow and empty as Virginia’s lavender-grey eyes.

Black Wings Has My Angel is a very good noir, a highly compelling story powered by strong emotions of desire, greed, suspicion and general debauchery. The characterisation is excellent, both credible and convincing. The love-hate relationship between Tim and Virginia is very well drawn; at times the sense of repulsion they exhibit for one another is as strong as the feeling of mutual attraction. Virginia is painted as a rather hard, voracious and impulsive woman, someone who is prepared to stop at nothing to get what she wants. Tim, on the other hand, has a little more depth to his personality. He is a veteran of the Second World War, irrevocably damaged by the brutality of conflict and the soul-destroying experience of life in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp where he was held for almost three years.

I told her how it’d been spending thirty-four months in the Japanese prison camp on the Island of Luzon, clamped there in the heat and filth with ten thousand others, and how they buried the weak ones alive, some of them who were too weak to work, too weak even to throw off the dirt and sit up in their graves. I told about getting my honourable discharge button and going home and selling office supplies until I blew my cork and landed in Parchman [jail] with Jeepie and Thompson and the others, and how at Parchman I’d decided I was through with being locked up and through being poor. (p. 55)

As a consequence of these experiences, Tim is frustrated by the mind-numbing nature of civilian life in post-war America; the prospect of sweating it out in a dead-end job seems utterly pointless to him.

This novel has been compared to the work of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, classics like The Postman Only Rings Twice and The Getaway. If you enjoy this style of noir fiction, chances are you’ll take to this. The writing isn’t quite in the same league as Cain’s or Thompson’s, but the storyline definitely stands up to the comparison.

I’ll finish with a final quote on Virginia, one that captures something of her presence and something of Chaze’s style. It’s textbook noir.

I wanted Virginia. She was a creature of moonlight, crazy as moonlight, all upthrusting radiance and hard silver dimples and hollows, built for one thing and only one thing and perfectly for that. (p. 177)

Guy has also reviewed this book here.

Black Wings Has My Angel is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

30 thoughts on “Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

  1. A Life in Books

    This certainly sounds deserving of the ‘classic’ tag. I wonder if Elliot Chaze is a pseudonym. Even before I started reading your post I knew that the novel must be a slice of noir, given that name!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great name, isn’t it? Just made for sleazy noir. Funnily enough, it appears to be his real one. He was born Lewis Elliott Chaze, but he went by the name of Elliott – possibly because his father was also called Lewis.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, I do enjoy a noir fix every now and again (see also: Simenon’s romans durs). I don’t know what it is about these bleak stories of desire, greed and self-destruction. However many I read, I never seem to tire of them.

      Reply
  2. realthog

    A great account of a novel that I too enjoyed. I may be mistaken, but I think I read it — not so long ago — as part of a Stark House double.

    after a few days of wild sex, he finds himself attracted to Virginia

    A curious observation . . . :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Funny that, isn’t it?

      There were some reports of a film adaptation (maybe 3 or 4 years ago), although it seems to have stalled at the pre-production stage. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you? Anna Paquin was going to take the part of Virgina (a great piece of casting imo) with Tom Hiddleston as Tim Sunblade (hmmm, I’m not so sure about his suitability for that role). Either way, I hope it sees the light of day as there’s the basis for a great movie here.

      Reply
      1. realthog

        I hadn’t heard about the proposed movie. I wonder whatever happened to it? I can’t believe they’d’ve cast Hiddleston in the part . . .

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like this one, Marina, as long as you’re in the mood for something dark and twisted. There is little hope of redemption here…

      Reply
  3. Guy Savage

    Thanks for the mention. I was delighted when NYRB chose this to republish as I had a bit of a hunt for a copy, and it’s a title that deserves revival.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I think I first heard about it when the film adaptation was mooted, maybe 3 or 4 years ago? Then when it appeared in the NYRB listings, the title rang a vague bell. Have you read anything else by Chaze? Based on the intro to this edition, it seems as though this was his best novel (possibly by quite a stretch).

      Reply
  4. Emma

    I don’t know how this didn’t end up on my virtual TBR after Guy’s review. Thanks for the great review and the reminder.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I think you’d like it a lot. The ending is pretty spectacular – right from the start you get the feeling that everything is set to implode.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think this is his best-known work by quite a lot way. It’s only comes back into the spotlight in recent years, largely as a result of publishers like NYRB.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it’s funny – I thought the exact same thing! In some ways, it’s almost more appealing to read this type of story in the bright sunshine. I might have found it too disturbing had I saved it for a dark night in winter…

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    The character of Tim sounds so interesting.

    I really want to read some books in this genre. Though I would probably start with Cain or Thompson.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I would start with Cain if I were you – maybe something like Double Indemnity or Mildred Pierce, just to ease yourself into the genre. Then you can move on to hard stuff a little later. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re very welcome! It’s in a similar vein to The Postman Always Rings Twice – that’s the nearest comparison I can think of. I hope you enjoy it should you decide to give it a go.

      Reply
  6. Max Cairnduff

    I noted this when Guy reviewed and it’s definitely on my for the future pile. It does sound classic. Two sets of bad choices colliding to make one truly terrible situation.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s very much in that vein. The story itself is pure dynamite – you just know that everything is bound to kick off at some point. The only thing I wasn’t entirely convinced about was the quality/consistency of Chaze’s prose. As as writer, he’s not in the same league as Cain or Thompson – well, at least that was my feeling by the time I had finished the book. The quotes I’ve selected probably show him at his best. I’ll be interested to see what you think whenever you get a chance to read it.

      Reply
  7. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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