Written by Elliott Chaze — This is a 2016 reissue by The New York Review of Books of a Mississippi newspaperman’s best noir crime novel, originally published in 1954. Black Wings Has My Angel is a roller-coaster of a read; lightning fast and a lot of fun.
At the outset, an escaped prisoner using the name Tim Sunblade has just finished a stint working on an oil rig and to rid himself of four months of grime takes a nice long bath at a cheap hotel. The comforts of the bath put him in mind of having a little female companionship, and with the bellman’s aid he meets Virginia. “Her eyes were lavender-grey and her hair was light creamy gold and springy-looking, hugging her head in curves rather than absolute curls.”
Sunblade has escaped from the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary, with the misleadingly bucolic nickname ‘Parchman Farm’. His plan is to head west and dump Virginia along the way, but somehow he just can’t leave her. Her look and demeanour suggest she’s not just a hotel tramp, and eventually he learns she’s on the lam herself – from police raids on the members of a high-class New York City call girl ring, where the ladies could garner $500 a throw.
When Sunblade discovers this, Virginia tells him a little about her past – that she used to sleep with various Army officers, who were always talking about ‘the big picture.’ “Do I make it clear, Tim? About what is the big picture?” she asks. “You make it clear that your wartime activities were not on the enlisted level.”
Virginia is accustomed to rolling in dough, literally, and more than a bit money-mad, so she has no trouble going along with Sunblade’s plan to rob an armoured car in Denver. This plan originally was hatched by his fellow prisoner Jeepie, killed in the prison escape, a death that haunts him. They have a rather dramatic plan for disposing of the evidence as well. Having spent time camping in the Rockies at a remote resort called Cripple Creek, they find an abandoned mine shaft seems just the thing.
Flush with their cash, the pair travel to New Orleans, where the Big Easy lifestyle becomes hard for Sunblade. They have too many people with too much money and not enough ambition in their social circle, and Virginia becomes lazy and loose. He drags her away, and they head east. He makes a small detour to drive through the tiny Mississippi town where he grew up, and that turns out to be a big mistake that shouldn’t have been one, compared to all their dangerous activities of the past few months.
It’s a first-person narrative, and Chaze has captured the voice of Sunblade terrifically well. A bit bemused by his fate, but resigned to it and to the choices he made. Loving and hating Virginia in fairly equal amounts. Too much whiskey and too many cigarettes.
Chaze wrote several other novels, but according to a Barry Gifford introduction to this re-issue, none of them stack up to Black Wings Has My Angel. A New Orleans native, Chaze worked for the Associated Press, served in World War II, then settled in Mississippi, working in various capacities for The Hattiesburg American, for a decade as its city editor. He lived a time in Denver as well, which is perhaps why his recreation of the major locations in the book are so convincing. His newspaper training shows in the economy and precision of his prose, and even when events are dire, the narrator assumes a detached view that allows his persistent wry humour to emerge.
Though Sunblade doesn’t often drift into ruminating about the larger questions in life, I was struck by this comment on its precariousness: “Life is a rental proposition with no lease.” That’s just the kind of thing Tim Sunblade would say.
Gifford believes Black Wings Has My Angel is a gem that still sparkles and has hopes that another movie will be made based on it. Apparently there was a French adaptation, but it wasn’t very good. Such a film would give overdue attention to the book and to author Chaze, since, as Gifford says, “Nobody writes books like Black Wings Has My Angel anymore.”
New York Review of Books
CFL Rating: 5 Stars