Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze
It is a slippery task to evaluate the quality of a work that is so deeply embedded in its own genre. B-movies, guilty pleasures, perfect pop songs, that “so-bad-it’s-good” accolade that countless genre fans will recall hearing defended in their own voices: is something worth anything if it shines through a narrow and limited critical window? Praise gets particularly muddied when in tandem with something else, existing outside whatever evaluative rubric you’re arbitrarily utilizing. It’s the classic no-contest of apples-v.-oranges, but more like comparing every fruit against honeydew, where so many other options are just inherently superior. A lab-grown radio hit shouldn’t be held to the same standards as an emerging jazz ensemble; an excellent giant-robot anime should be laureled far away from the best vintage Saturday-morning cartoon. The same could be said for any creative field, but critical readers are often hesitant to see the realm of fiction as an amalgamation of subsets, each worthy of their own, unique evaluations.
Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel is a perfect novel, if your idea of a novel has been cropped down to the narrow edges of the hard-boiled mystery. Chaze’s prose is as chillingly intoxicating as a whiskey-soaked ice cube: he is a master of his genre’s seedy coolness and exacting plot, and amidst bank heists and double-crosses builds a remarkably resounding relationship between narrator Tim Sunblade and his dame Virginia.
Written in 1953 (the same year as Hemingway won the Pulitzer for The Old Man and the Sea), Black Wings Has My Angel tells the story of Tim Sundblade’s shady plans for a big break after returning from a gig as a roughneck on a southeastern oil rig. To blow off steam, he hires Virginia for a night (or three) at a hotel in Krotz Springs, Louisiana. Physically, things go as planned but the two feel an unexpected emotional connection: fueled by their own private motivations (none being, of course, in the other’s best interest) Tim and Virginia decide to travel out west together towards the Colorado Rockies where Tim thinks he may be able to set a score in motion. “People are no damned good,” a voice in Tim’s head reminds him. “Get yours, boy, while there’s some left. And get it while you’re young enough to live it up.”
Tim’s narration reads as if through snarled, cigarette’d lips, driven by a lust for women, money and a new freedom to take initiative in his own life. “You’ll never make anyone happy,” Virginia tells him one drunken night. “Not permanently happy, I mean. All your love is where it’s easy to get at and easy to lose.” Virginia, through Tim’s eyes, is an accomplice straight out of Hollywood:
“She giggled, a small light sound against the heavy hum of the Packard. She was breathing oddly, her shoulders moving as if her lungs were upstairs there, in her shoulders. She wore a T shirt of some kind of cocoa toweling and when she leaned back hard against the seat it was a splendid thing to see. Her skirt was gray flannel and it fitted as if it had been smeared on her, and below it were the legs. You hear and read about legs. But when you see the really good ones, you know the things you read and heard were a lot of trash.”
They seem more than just a trope, but maybe they’re exactly that: the perfect execution of page and screen cliches, refined at the hands of an expert.
Despite the temptation of leaving her at a rest stop, Tim and Virginia make it to Cripple Creek and begin hatching a plan to rob a bank. By coordinating the movements of a system of armored cars and scouting the activity (or lack thereof) around the abandoned Katie Llewelyn mineshaft, they put into motion a series of covers and calculations to see their plan to fruition.
A particular thrill of Black Wings is watching Tim’s classic cool melt away for Virginia. “I wanted to hit her in the mouth,” he says, “but more than that I wanted to hear what she had to say.” Fleshing out these characters makes the book a more well-rounded story to read, but Virginia’s backstory is interesting, first and foremost, to Tim. Black Wings is shaped by its characters’ genuine interest in each other: they open up about their history, their previous troubles with the law, even their real names, and watching the details emerge makes that love all the more believable.
The novel’s drama unfolds in an expected a series of reversals, but that’s fine since our attention is diverted elsewhere, to these characters and the humanity that’s buried underneath their noir circumstances. Towards the end of the novel, Tim revisits the town where he grew up and is inundated with a similar sort of self-discovery. He recalls his first love:
“I’d held her in the swing down the block, on her front porch, back in the days when holding hands was a lovely explosion, when home-made pimiento cheese sandwiches and lemonade were manna from heaven. How many years ago? How many years since those pimiento-flavored kisses?”
It’s difficult to read a book so perfectly vintage and so masterfully on point and not wonder, too, where those years have gone.