by Elliot Chaze
He smiled awfully and left, and she came in and shut the door and there we were in the room together, just like that. We weren’t—and then we were.
An escaped convict has successfully blended in to a low-profile, modest income job when he cashes in, deciding to live a little, and he chances across an irresistible call girl whom he feels he must keep…on call. The two travel together, and he eventually realizes she hiding from something. This starts a revolving wheel of trust and mistrust between the two, but eventually he tells her of a plan conceived in prison for the heist of a lifetime.
The (mis)trust is one of the most fascinating parts of the dark novel. The two do really seem to love each other, at least at times, yet have great fear of the other’s capabilities. They don’t know how to get rid of their wariness, because their lives have taught them that if they do trust someone else it’s dangerous and they’re being suckers. (This very issue, of course, has made a ton of psychiatrists rich and keeps business booming for divorce lawyers.)
Furthermore, their mutual, unstated familiarity with violence and power draws them together like magnets. For instance, the following passage immediately proceeds her first warming to him, not as a call girl but as a lover:
When I had the girdle clear of her bare feet I reared up on my knees and hit her, putting all the pain of my nose into it. She kept moving around and I slammed my fist into her face again and I didn’t care if the whole FBI was hiding in the rocks with a portable electric chair.
But it’s not just the main characters’ built-in traits that bind the reader; these two walk right off the page. You can smell and taste and touch the duo, although they’ll kill you for it. She’s the kind of femme fatale who dominates any room, causing all others to fade into the background, but her darkness and distrust bring her down from goddess status to beautifully radioactive. He’s unremarkable on the surface, but contains an iron determination and a devil-may-care, unhinged sense of retribution that’s unleashed whenever he’s crossed on level deemed important. Together these two keep you glued to the page.
Language use and writing style is also noteworthy, high praise for a genre that mastered the hard edge. There are far too many incredible passages to list here, but have a few anyway:
I felt so marvelously clean and soaped and so in tune with the whole damned universe that I had the feeling I could have clouded up and rained and lightninged myself, and blown that cheese-colored room to smithereens.
After all, no matter how long you live, there aren’t too many really delicious moment 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 out for yourselves, 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 is clear to you when you know the very day you’re going to die.
“Baby, just about anywhere you die there’s somebody watching. It doesn’t make any difference whether they’re watching you die in a bed or in a chair, somebody’s going to be there. It’s strictly a spectator sport.”
(There’s more—a lot more.)
As a crime novel this has all the tension you’d expect built into the story, but then it cranks it up. Black Wings Has My Angel is undoubtedly top-level noir, with its characters sinking into blackness then surfacing for air, only to sink again under their own weight, their own mistrust and the prophetic doom they feel their actions have brought upon them. In a way it’s textbook, but because of the strong, three dimensional couple, everything sinks to an even darker shade of black than it should.
The novel’s a stunner, and equal to the earlier, definitive works of the masters. Everyone’s heard of Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and James Cain. But who the hell’s ever heard of Elliot Chaze? You have.
“I read once that this man was in the chair and when the electrocutioner threw the switch the smoke came out of the man’s head and formed a question mark over him and everybody said it was an omen, that maybe he didn’t commit the murder they killed him for.”
“Well,” I said, “if they catch me, there won’t be any question mark. There’ll be an exclamation point.”