He’d always said the plan called for two people, one on the waiting end, one on the dying end. Well, I had two people. […] Virginia would be on the waiting end. I didn’t mind the dying end. Because back there I never thought about how a man could die by the clock and calendar, ticking off the days and the minutes as if he were waiting to have a baby. When I thought of dying there was a lot of noise in it and then blackness, no different than any other blackness but more complete and lasting.
Elliott Chaze was not a particularly well-known or prolific author, writing just ten novels between 1947 and 1986. Most of his writing career was spent as a journalist, or writing short fiction and articles for various slick magazines. The novels he did write were colored by his own experiences, such as The Stainless Steel Kimono about G.I.s in occupied Japan, where Chaze served after fighting with the 11th Airborne across the Pacific. But of those ten novels, one is almost always cited as an example of Gold Medal’s greatest crime fiction: Black Wings Has My Angel.
Gold Medal editions can fetch a hefty sum on the secondary market, buoyed by the story’s reputation (and a forthcoming film starring Anna Paquin and Tom Hiddleston), though Stark House Press reprinted it not too long ago with Bruce Elliott’s One Is A Lonely Number.
He escaped from prison much as he escaped the POW camp, and changed his name to Timothy Sunblade, but he never forgot about the plan. Even when he collected a ten-dollar callgirl in a fleabag Mississippi motel, a woman named Virginia on the run from her own dark past, he was thinking about the plan. And when they set themselves up as newly-weds in the Denver suburbs, acting content to water the lawn and work a dead-end job, it was all part of the plan—a plan left to Tim Sunblade by a fellow prisoner killed in the breakout, the perfect plan to heist hundreds of thousands in crumpled bills from an armored truck. But it’s only a perfect plan if Tim and Virginia don’t kill each other first.
The narrator-protagonist—the man calling himself Tim Sunblade—has a relaxed, easygoing tone as he talks to the reader, making the novel into something of a confession as he recounts his past deeds… sometimes analyzing them, sometimes foreshadowing. There’s a black cloud hovering overhead though, a sense of impending doom channeled through Tim’s recollection of events. (Which may be caused by a shrapnel splinter lodged in his head from the War, something that’s implied several times as the reason for his grim personality.)
Chaze’s prose is magnificent. Among those moments of blackest humanity, the writing has moments of brilliant imagery, scenes packed with tension or dread, brutal violence which underlies otherwise calm moments. The plotting is somewhat relaxed, building up steam and tension for a later explosion; it’s not a pageturner because of action, it’s a pageturner because the novel telegraphs that release of all this tension will be worth the wait. It’s also not a book for a casual read, as it demands the reader pay attention to find those fine details that explain motives and backgrounds and intentions. Furthermore, it bears a literary weight; you get the feeling Chaze is talking about something deeper and more complex than a simple heist. For those reasons, I find it a masterwork of style.
The love/hate relationship between Tim and Virginia is a driving force for the characters; they hate and fight like cats and dogs, but can’t keep their hands off each other either; despite their hate they can’t shake each other, bound by an unknown force. Virginia goes off several times, and another point Tim abandons her only to find she’s lifted his cash; in both cases when he tracks her down she’s with some other man. Perhaps the only greater driving force for them is greed, an animal lust for the contents of the armored truck. Virginia’s greed runs deeper, to the point where she makes an off-hand comment about bathing in money—something she does once she gets the chance, which influenced the cover to one of the few reprints:
What impressed me most—and makes me agree that this is the quintessential Gold Medal—is the way Chaze incorporated all the noir elements. The downward-spiral relationship of mutual abuse and callous love, plus the stark, crisp dialogue, channels Jim Thompson. The armored car heist is reminiscent of Richard Stark’s Parker stories, as is the brutal tone and antihero protagonist. And the sense of forthcoming doom—the black clouds and sound of far-off thunder you can sense from the prose’s tension—foretells David Goodis or Gil Brewer or Charles Williams, the sense of some inevitable explosion yet to come that will send our maimed protagonists flying.
Chaze did all that at a time around or before these authors had hit their stride, before such themes were commonplace genre tropes. Here, they’ve sprung fully formed at the beginning of the ’50s, when noir still meant Spillane-style private eyes. With strength and surity, Black Wings Has My Angel foretold the fiction Gold Medal would be remembered for.
I was hesitant to read the novel due to its mythic reputation, worried the product would not live up to the hype. From my perspective, it lived up to—maybe even surpassed—that praise. The novel does have a tendency to plod along, but it does so in a contemplative, dreamlike manner—dreams that invert the fabled American Dream, de-mythologizing it in greed and blood and sex. Black Wings Has My Angel is not something to read, but something to experience; you feel its weight in your very bones, in the pit of your stomach, in the back of your mind as you’re trying to sleep at night.
It’s not often that I have an emotional/physical reaction to a novel; Black Wings was a strong exception. It’s a masterwork that leaves my head reeling and my soul drained. It succeeds at making me think long after I’ve closed its pages; the themes it touches on range from free will to the treatment of veterans to mental illness to sanity to death. If you know what’s best, you’ll go forth and experience it on your own. You have been warned.