“You’ve never heard a siren until you’ve heard one looking for you and you alone. Then you really hear it and know what it is and understand that the man who invented it was no man, but a fiend from hell who patched together certain sounds and blends of sounds in a way that would paralyze and sicken. You sit in your living room and hear a siren and it’s a small and lonesome thing and all it means to you is that you have to listen until it goes away. But when it is after you, it is the texture of the whole world. You will hear it until you die. It tears the guts out of you like a drill against a nerve and it moves into you and expands.”
In the afterword of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Fatale, I came across the title of another novel, Black Wings Has My Angel, written by Elliott Chaze (1915-1990). Chaze’s novel doesn’t seem to be prominent these days, but it’s been republished by Stark House, it’s also available as a kindle version, and a film version is due for release next year. After reading that Black Wings Has My Angel (1953) impressed Manchette, I knew I had to read it.
Black Wings Has My Angel is one of the bleakest, darkest, most haunting noir novels I’ve read to date, so noir fans, make note of the name, do yourself a favour and grab a copy. It’s easy to see Manchette was impressed–this novel is brilliant.
The story opens with a man who says his name is Tim whooping it up in a hotel room after “roughnecking” on a drilling rig for the past four months, and he’s soaking in a bath when a bellboy delivers a local prostitute as ordered. In this dump of a town, Tim isn’t expecting much in the way of looks, but he gets Virginia, an expensive looker with a killer body, “skin the color of pearls melted into honey,” and lavender eyes. A night of booze and sex, and a straight transaction based on money should lead to a parting the next day, but it doesn’t play out that way:
I hauled out of the tub and picked her up and carried her back into the bedroom and it was three days before we left the room. Together. She said it was like the song we kept getting on the little bedside radio: “If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time.” The trashy tune and words sounded funny coming out of her in the Wellesley manner, in that imperceptibly clipped, ladylike voice.
“But when the money’s gone,” she said, “I’m gone, too. I don’t sleep for thrills any more.”
“Did you ever?”
She laughed. “Let’s let it go at that; I just don’t any more.”
That was all right with me. After the months on the river I didn’t feel finicky about the nuances of romance–all I wanted was plenty of it. At that 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.
“When the money’s gone,” I told her, “I’ll probably be sick of you.”
“I hope so.”
“It’d be better if you’re sick of me.” But like I say, when we left the hotel we left it together, the funny-faced bellhop toting out bags out to my Packard convertible, carrying the bags a block to the parking lot down by the river, smirking every foot of the way.
So begins a strange, twisted relationship between two lost characters. Lest you think that there’s some budding romance taking place, think again. Virginia has already frankly admitted that she’s along for the ride until the money runs out, and as for Tim, he tells us “my plan had been to get enough of her and to leave her in some filling station rest room between Dallas and Denver.” But can you ever get enough of a person when they feel nothing, give nothing and have you begging for more of the same?
Tim and Virginia don’t talk much about their pasts to each other, but as the story continues, we learn that they are both on the run for different reasons. Tim’s suspicions that Virginia came from money, or at least led an expensive life are confirmed:
“Everything stinks without the money.”
“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.”
“You said again.”
“Did I? She asked it teasingly.
“You tell me.”
“Oh, no difference,” I said. “No difference at all. But you’re a funny one, with your saddle-stitched shoes and your million-dollar luggage and half the time trying to talk like a ten-dollar tramp in that snooty voice. You’re a comic.”
“Don’t be tiresome.”
“That’s what I mean, words like tiresome. I never in my life heard a tramp say tiresome.”
She had lost interest. “Some day,” she said, “I’m going to slosh around in hundred-dollar bills, new ones that’ve never been used before.”
Virginia keeps her word, and later, much later, in the book a scene takes place in which she strips and writhes around on a pile of money, and it’s this scene Manchette never forgot.
Tim and Virginia have several opportunities to be a ‘normal’ couple and lead a normal, modest working-class life together, but since this is noir, they are led by greed to plan a heist. Unlike a lot of heist novels, however, Black Wings Has My Angel goes far beyond the details of the heist to the lucrative, meaningless ‘after-life’ of crime. There are times when they may seem succesful, times when they appear to get everything they wish for, but always there’s fate in the form of unfinished business waiting in the shadows to lead them to their doom.
I read a lot of noir, and Black Wings Has My Angel (several ways to interpret the title which is btw Il Gèle en Enfer in French) is one of those hopeless, doom-laden stories that leaves the reader feeling as hollow as its main characters. Way back at the beginning of the story Tim thinks he has a future and that he’s free to make choices, but once he meets Virginia, these two warped, hollow people become inseparable in a sick and twisted way and their fate is sealed.
The novel’s incredible power is partly derived from the way we see that these damaged people kid themselves about what they want, and as long as they are driven along by crime, they function, but once life switches to pre- or post- crime, they start to feed off of each other instead of society. Separately Virginia and Tim are trouble, but together, they are a disaster. These days, the term co-dependents would be thrown at this pair, but that term doesn’t fit the deep need they have for each other or the way they return to the relationship, washed back to the same shore repeatedly by fate. So we see that Tim and Virginia are a deadly combination, two sides of the same coin that cannot live without each other, yet they despise each other and are self-destructive. Wrapped tightly in their love-hate relationship, Tim and Virginia have both done a lot of bad things in their pasts, and they appear to be guilt-free. But there’s one deed that haunts them, and dogs their every step…
Here’s a line from a poem written by Bonnie Parker’s about her relationship with Clyde Barrow:
Some day they’ll go down together