You might have noticed, Dear Readers, that while I read omnivorously, I hardly ever read horror novels (come to think of it, can’t remember the last time I did). I don’t enjoy being frightened, though I know a good many people are devotees of monsters, atmospheric creepiness, or gore (or all three). By the same token, you won’t often find me reading anything that features child endangerment (didn’t care for it before I became a parent, and now even less so) or perusing the true-crime shelf.
But I love classic noir. Plenty of suspense and hard-boiled writing with none of the drawbacks of horror or modern crime fiction (though, to be fair, it has plenty of its own problems, like racism, homophobia, and misogyny; this is one of those cases of loving something despite its flaws, not because of them).
Generally I take my noir in straight-up film form—The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, The Big Heat—but occasionally I dip into the print canon (here’s my review of The Big Sleep). Enter Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel (1953), apparently a classic in the genre that’s been languishing out of print for decades, but now revived by NYRB Classics.
Black Wings Has My Angel is noir in the mode of Double Indemnity: nobody’s a good guy, the narrator is the male protagonist, and that narrator is stuck on a blonde femme fatale.
In this case, the femme fatale is Virginia, a “ten-dollar tramp” with cream-colored hair, lavender eyes, and a Wellesley accent, whom Timothy Sunblade meets after he comes off a job (and, apparently, a prison escape) in the Deep South. Though he intends to cut her loose as he makes his way out West to plan a big heist, he finds, time and again, that he can’t do it. She’s beautiful, mysterious, and damn, can she drive a Packard.
So she becomes his partner, even though he’s half in love with her and half inclined to murder her (she’s not trustworthy, and she’s got capital-L law problems of her own). From Denver to New Orleans and back again, the duo suffer reversals and get everything they think they want (and Virginia wants to bathe in cold hard cash—literally), driven by greed and fear and a determined plan. Eventually, though, the ride comes to an end, as it must in a noir, with unexpected violence.
One of the impressive things about the book (and quite a bit of classic noir, film and print), is how much violence and sensuality come across without heaps of gore or, as they say, blue language. Here’s an example, after Virginia tells Tim just how much she hates gentlemen: “I threw her on the bed and she smiled up at me. For the next three hours I applied myself to proving I hadn’t become, and wouldn’t become, a gentleman.”
Not that it’s all sex and violence. Chaze has a way of vividly bringing a setting to life. I love the description of Virginia “out there on the thin green grass, watering, the high altitude sunlight making silver hyphens of the droplets.” And his is one of the few novels I’ve read that’s set exclusively in the West and South (I recently read Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, or Carol, which makes use of the road trip West in a very different way). Chaze sets up the two regions in sharp contrast:
I kept comparing the rocks and the sky with what we have down South and kind of gloating to think that the South, though lacking in chamber-of-commerce promotion, has the subtlest colors and teasingest smells a man could want. Out West all the smells are sucked up out of the baked land by the sun. And it’s as if all the colors in the ground are gobbled up by their sunsets, and so is the blue of the sky. The sky is high and pale and impersonal and you get the feeling it doesn’t belong to you at all, but that it is the property of the chamber of commerce. In the South the sky is humid and low and rich and it’s yours to smell and feel. In the West someone sees a flower growing on a mountain and he writes a whole damned pamphlet about it. In the South the roses explode out of the weeds in the yards of the poorest shanties. Blood red ones And pink ones–pink as that new girdle.
It’s the South, of course, with its “teasingist smells,” where Virgina and Timothy meet and later find themselves in the most trouble, the West where in the thin air the two seem to lose their oxygen—and their minds.
If you’re a fan of noir, I highly recommend Black Wings Has My Angel. Great pacing, snappy writing with memorable description, and a plot that’s surprising to the end.
P.S. Shoutout to the Cleveland Museum of Art, from whence comes the cover photograph by Erwin Blumenthald.