Sunday, January 27, 2013

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze and One Is a Lonely Number by Bruce Elliott

Over the years Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel has taken on a near-legendary status, and become one of the most sought-after of Gold Medal  novels. It's title alone- poetic and darkly evocative- is enticing enough. True to form, Gold Medal's teaser for this 1953 paperback pitched it somewhere between the sublime and  ridiculous: "She had the face of a madonna and a heart made of dollar bills."  However, since then Black Wings... has also gained a reputation as the most literary of pulp novels. And, happily, Chaze's novel, as this wonderful Stark House reissue attests, easily lives up to its reputation.

A year after it was published in the US, it appeared on the Serie Noire imprint in France, albeit in the usual, for that publishing house, truncated form, with the title Il gele en enfer (roughly "Hell Freezes Over"). Back then Chaze was publishing stories in the New Yorker, Cosmopolitan and Colliers, and putting together a string of novels, though none would be as visceral or pulp-oriented as Black Wings... 

Black Wings... is narrated in the first person by "Tim Sunblade," a recent escapee from Parchman Farm, who meets Virginia, a call-girl he's hired to satisfy his post-prison hunger. His ambition is to pull off a robbery that will set him up for life. Virginia is beautiful but highly unpredictable. She too has a past and is an escapee of sorts. At first Tim simply wants to get rid of her, but soon realizes she might be useful. Eventually he falls in love with her. Together they pull off the robbery, but that, of course, is just the beginning of their problems.

"I was sick of Virginia, too, and of what the money had done to the both of us, changing a tough, elegant adventuress with plenty of guts and imagination into a candy-tonguing country club Cleopatra who nested in bed the whole day long and thought her feet were too damned good to walk on."

Spending most of his time in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Chaze also worked as  an Associated Press reporter in Colorado and Louisiana. Not surprisingly, these three locales- Mississippi, Colorado and Louisiana- form the backdrop to Black Wings.... By the time Chaze died in Mamou, Louisiana in 1990, he only had a hint that his book had developed a cult following. The likes of  Max Collins, Bill Prozini and Edward Gorman had proclaimed Black Wings... the quintessential Gold Medal novel, and Barry Gifford paid him a visit in  Hattiesburg to talk about Black Lizard publishing his novel, writing about the experience and the book in an issue of Oxford American. Unfortunately, Gifford's plans had to be  ditched when new owners took over his company. Presently, Black Wings... is about to hit the screen, starring Anna Paquin and Elija Wood, with a  screenplay by Gifford. I hope it turns out to be at least half as good as the book, though, of course, I'm not betting on it.  

"I couldn't stand not to look either. I think I'm going crazy. I've got to look at it and I can't, like a woman who's known for months she had a cancer and the doctor finally tells her it's there and he tells her where to look to see it. And she must look at it but she can't.”  

 Chaze's novel is preceded by another downbeat narrative, this one by Bruce Elliott entitled One is a Lonely Number. I hadn't had much intention of reading this one, but two pages into the book I was hooked and finished it off in two sittings. How could I not with paragraphs like this: 

"The night was dark but alive. It was too hot to sleep in stinking box-like rooms, rooms just enough bigger than a coffin so that bodies had to be moved when they died, but not big enough so a human could endure living in them. Radios blared from the open windows all around him. Middle-aged blowsy women hung out windows, looking, searching, as if they could see something that would be different enough from what they had seen the night before so that later they could say, oh that musta been the night that Charley got cut up, or Betty got punched around, or whatever it was they were looking for, waiting for."

Not as  literary as Black Wings..., but the writing is still very good, feeding into a rapid-fire narrative, which, by the end, will leave you gasping. And it's as  perverse a tale as you're going to read, one that fits squarely in the Jim Thompson-Gil Brewer school of warped hard-boiled prose. The novel opens with Larry,  an ex-musician, and yet another escapee from prison- in this case Joliet- in bed with a  prostitute. All he needs to do is get some money together and get to Mexico.  Needless to say, with everyone trying to get him to do their dirty work, his plans do not according to plan.    

Not that much is known about  Bruce Elliott. His real name was Walter Gardner Lively Syacy, was born in 1915, hit by a car in 1972 and ended up in a coma, before dying  in 1973. One Is a Lonely Number was published in the US by Lion Books in 1952 and in France under the title Un tout seul in 1954.  As well as mysteries, Elliott wrote sci-fi, including a comic fantasy about Satan entitled The Devil Was Sick, TV scripts and a number of stories for Shadow magazine. He was also a stage magician who wrote various books on the subject, including Professional Magic Made Easy and The Professional Magician. One Is a Lonely Number represents yet another  lost novel unearthed by Stark House, which, as far as I'm concerned, has become one of the preeminent publishers of hardboiled fiction.

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