Category Archives: Chaze Elliott

Black Wings Has My Angel: Elliott Chaze

“After all, no matter how long you live, there aren’t too many delicious moments along the way, since most of life is spent eating and sleeping and waiting for something to happen that never does. You can figure it up for yourself, using your own life as the scoreboard. Most of living is waiting to live. And you spend a great deal of time worrying about things that don’t matter and about people that don’t matter and all this you know the very day you’re going to die.”

I read Black Wings Has My Angel, a 1953 novel from Elliott Chaze in 2012. It not only made my best-of-year list, but it also became one of my all-time favourite books. Not many books crack that well-established list at this stage of my game.  Black Wings Has My Angel is perfect noir. It’s perfect in its set-up, it’s bleak, doom-laden outlook, and its characterisations of the soulless prostitute Virginia and the war damaged, escaped convict ‘Tim.’ These two people connect in a pact of distrust, lust and mutual greed, and although their heist goes as planned, their relationship with each other brings fate hurtling down upon them with a vengeance. When I saw that NYRB reissued the book, I decided to read it again and see if it was indeed as wonderful as I remembered. It was.

Our narrator, an escaped convict who calls himself Tim has taken a break from society by “roughnecking” on an drilling rig. He’s amassed a pile of money, has a plan to pull a heist, and when the novel opens, he’s in a hotel soaking in a tub when the bellboy delivers a prostitute. But this just isn’t any prostitute: this is Virginia, a gorgeous woman with a killer body who shouldn’t be turning tricks in this rinky dink town. Tim plans to whoop it up with a hooker for a few days and then move on, but his plans change and he finds himself moving on with Virginia.

Black wings has my angel NYRB

Ten dollar tramp” Virginia is beautiful, and she quickly shows she can’t be trusted, but she gets under Tim’s skin. Before long, he thinks he loves her, in spite of her telling him, “But when the money’s gone,” she said, “I’m gone too. I don’t sleep for thrills any more.” She’s like some exotic perfume that clings to his skin, and he convinces himself that they can pull a heist together. Although initially we don’t know much about either Virginia or Tim, over time, their pasts are revealed. While Tim, haunted by various experiences, appears to have been unable to readjust to society after life in a Japanese work camp,  Virginia is soulless, hard and empty. Perhaps that explains why Tim can never get enough of her. There’s simply nothing to get.

As smiles go, the one she’d given me was a fine one, but it was cold, too, if you know what I mean, plenty of stretch in the lips but no eyes or heart in it. Like her lovemaking. Mechanically splendid, yet as though the performance was the result of some remote control and did not really involve her. 

As so often happens with noir, we try to pinpoint just when things go wrong for the characters, at which point, Tim could have pulled out and moved on. And is always, we see a tangled path, years in the making that brings these two people–one damaged, and one soulless together. Initially it’s a physical fusion but their relationship is fated for entropy. While they plan a heist and live as a ‘normal’ suburban couple, they have a mutual goal to work for, but once their goal is achieved, they’re not happy, and begin to implode as fate waits, patiently, in the dark corners. There’s a circular quality to this noir story, a balance between crimes, murder and fate which is served up, finally, as a sort of rough justice.

For this re-read, I paid more attention to Tim’s attitude towards society and just where he started to go down a wrong path. Embittered by his father’s experiences as a dentist who rarely got paid, he sees society as grinding down men until they’re lobotomized into being grateful for life as a wage-slave, a humble clapboard house and a sparse lawn. And while it’s easy to think that his first mistake was taking Virginia along for the ride, that’s not true. I think of a quote from a Laurie Colwin short story: My MistressShe is the road I have travelled to her, and I am hers.”

Elliott Chaze’s skill creates sympathy for Tim, and this is in spite of the fact that he murders in cold blood. But perhaps part of our sympathy germinates for Tim when we compare him to Virginia. He has a lifetime to replay scenes in his head:

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 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.

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Black Wings Has My Angel: Elliott Chaze (1953)

“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.”

“Why?”

“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.”

“Almost everything.”

“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.”

“What difference?”

“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

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