Monday, April 28, 2014

A Classic Hard-Boiled Novel from Elliott Chaze

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

Black Wings Has My Angel was originally published in 1953 as a Gold Medal mass-market paperback, one of the hundreds of pulpish novels aimed at male readers that filled paperback book racks in drugstores and other such places all over the country in the Fifties. For whatever reason, though, and unlike so many of the other of these books that can still be found in used bookstores, this one has become extremely scarce, which is a tragedy because it's a classic of the hard-boiled school. Kudos, then, to the folks at Stark House who have reprinted the book in a new edition, along with One Is a Lonely Number, by Bruce Elliott.

The story is narrated by a man who’s initially calling himself Tim Sunblade. We quickly learn that Tim has recently broken out of prison and that he has a plan to pull off a crime that will leave him on easy street for the rest of his life. In a fleabag motel, he sends out for a ten-dollar hooker. The woman who arrives with the bellboy calls herself Virginia and appears to be much too beautiful and skilled at her trade to be working this low-rent circuit.

Sunblade is entranced by the woman and so takes her along when he hits the road. He tells himself that he will dump her before too long, but he never gets around to doing so. She’s gotten under his skin and in a novel like this, we know that's going to mean a whole lot of trouble not too far down the road. "I wanted Virginia," he says. "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."

Virginia has secrets of her own and in a relationship like this, neither party can afford to trust the other very far. It’s bound to be a rocky ride, and more than a little bit dangerous, but Tim ultimately concludes that Virginia is just the partner he needs for the big job he intends to pull off.

Through the early part of the book, we watch the two travel cross country and make the necessary preparations for the crime they intend to commit. In the interim, they see a lot of the country, vividly described by Chaze, and they also have a lot of fairly rough sex, which is also fairly vividly described, at least for 1953.

In many respects, of course, this is a fairly familiar story, but in the hands of Elliott Chaze, it rises to something extraordinary. The writing is visceral and cuts close to the bone. As my friend, William Johnson, has suggested, this is a book that you feel rather than simply read.

My only reservation has to do with the crime itself. Without giving anything away, there's a development that took me out of the story just enough to make me give this four stars rather than five. But still, it's an excellent read and one that any fan of classic crime fiction should race out and discover for him or herself.

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