The Telltale Novel




I WAS WORKING at Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans last year when I first heard about Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel. My co-worker told me it was a favorite of Ace Atkins’s and Barry Hannah’s, the former a crime writer with a love for Faulkner and the latter a literary writer with a deep appreciation for noir. Both lived in Oxford, Mississippi, a town I’d called home for a time. Together, my co-worker and I scoured the listings of booksellers to see if we could order it because it’d long been out of print. After a thorough search, we found a small publisher (Black Curtain Press, which now appears to be defunct) that republished Black Wings in 2013. We nabbed copies and formed a two-member ad hoc book club to enthuse over our discovery.

When I got mine in the mail, I felt like an archeologist of 1950s pulp. I’d unearthed one of the great secret noirs of the 20th century, a clandestine novel known only to writers with fingers applied firmly to the former pulse of a corpse, and was insufferably pleased with myself. With my connoisseur’s eye, I noted that Elliott Chaze’s name — set in cartoonish script under the glower of a pixelated femme fatale — had been misspelled on the cover.

Now, after my short year of superiority, everyone else has a chance to catch up. New York Review Books just published an attractive edition of Black Wings as an NYRB Classic. Chaze’s novel joins the prestige publisher’s impressive catalog of translations and republications of out-of-print, criminally undervalued works. Black Wings fits into NYRB’s publishing mission perfectly. As editor Sara Kramer told me via email, this book was unknown to most.

“When I asked my local noir expert, Sarah Weinman, if she’d read it, she responded that she knew of it but hadn’t read it,” Kramer said. “There’s something appealing about a legendary book that’s been so unavailable that even the deep divers haven’t gotten their hands on it.”

NYRB’s interest and revival of Black Wings is great news for Chaze’s legacy and his newest wave of readers. Not only does his masterpiece receive the credit it deserves from a publisher with a respected and real connoisseur’s eye, but readers everywhere can now follow the exploits of Chaze’s unforgettable antihero, a man who calls himself Timothy Sunblade.

A veteran with a head wound, a southern Mississippian with a suburban chip on his shoulder, and an escaped convict still ripe with the scent of prison, Sunblade is haunted by the promise of a perfect heist. After working on an oilrig to earn some quick cash, Sunblade decides to recover from his blue-collar labors with a prostitute for a few days before carrying out his grand plan. But the prostitute turns out to be more than a convenient piece of his fantasy: Virginia is a hard-edged woman with her own twisted past — an unconventional femme fatale — who promises that “[w]hen the money’s gone […] I’ll probably be sick of you.” But if all goes according to plan, Sunblade will be flush and that won’t be a problem he’ll ever have to consider.

The premise sells itself, and I hope that the book’s republication will bring it the wide audience it deserves. But while this restoration of dignity was a long time coming, I still cherish my misspelled edition, which seems somehow representative of “Elliot’s” writing career, a tortured publication history familiar to many noir writers.

Black Wings Has My Angel, originally printed in 1953 by Gold Medal Books, is Chaze’s one entry into the world of so-called “pulp noir.” He likely wanted more esteemed recognition, writing a number of books deemed literary in an attempt to keep up with his contemporaries, authors he was published alongside in Cosmopolitan or The New Yorker — John O’Hara, Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few. He didn’t have their name recognition, but he had similar publishing credentials. Hemingway even counted The Stainless Steel Kimono, Chaze’s first novel, about the lives of paratroopers during World War II, among his favorites.

Chaze worked as a newspaperman throughout his life, spending time in Denver and New Orleans, joining the Associated Press’s bureau there, before moving to Southern Mississippi — all milieus represented in Black Wings. In later life, depictions of Chaze are as a man burdened by the pain of never living up to his own expectations or gaining the acknowledgment he believed he deserved.

Barry Gifford witnessed a side of that bitterness when he sought out Chaze in 1987 at his Mississippi home. He broke through Chaze’s “cynical façade,” an encounter he details in NYRB’s introduction. At the time of his visit, Gifford ran Black Lizard Books and wanted to add Black Wings to his impressive noir catalog. This book, he said, would be the publisher’s crowning achievement. Recommendations flew in from every author Gifford knew: Elmore Leonard, Ed Gorman, and Max Collins, among others. Readers and writers were invested in Black Lizard’s publications, and Gifford thought Chaze’s old pulp novel had something to say to them. But he needed Chaze’s blessing (and the rights) first. Things didn’t go quite as expected — Chaze waggishly put a gun in his own mouth and “praised his magnolias that he pampered” before offering his approval, telling Gifford he didn’t see why the hell not. Gifford offered him a small sum, and they came to terms.

What Black Lizard Books achieved is remarkable, taking books long out of print and putting them in the hands of readers ravenous for the twisted psychology and horrific Depression-and-war-driven pessimism that seemed to dominate classic hard-boiled mysteries. The publisher had an extraordinary impact on the landscape of modern noir, giving new life to names like Charles Williams, Peter Rabe, and Harry Whittington. But it took a number of unprofitable publications before USA Today or The Wall Street Journal wrote features about Black Lizard, allowing for its eventual growth. “We run this business on 50 cents, a pencil, and a telephone. And sometimes we have a tough time paying for the telephone,” Gifford often claimed.

“I wanted something a little different,” Gifford told me on the phone,

I didn’t want any pure potboilers or slash-and-dash books — that kind of thing. I thought there was a particular mindset that Chaze had, that Thompson had, that Goodis had, and Charles Willeford especially had. These were intelligent writers who had something more to give. They were working in this genre. Only Chandler and Hammett and James M. Cain and very few others were given proper attention.

Gifford no longer runs Black Lizard. Random House acquired the publisher in 1990 and allowed much of its list to fall out of print. They also decided against republishing Black Wings after all of Gifford’s efforts to acquire it. Gifford continues to hold a torch for Black Wings to this day — he discussed the idea of making the book into a film with David Lynch and worked on a recent script with producer and director Christopher Peditto. But Random House’s new version of Black Lizard stuck with established crime writers like Chandler, Hammett, and Cain, leaving Chaze’s greatest work to tread water in the cupped hands of print-on-demand publishers.

This is a common story for crime fiction and noir — literary classics never go out of print, but what endures and is revered remains arbitrary. It took more than 20 years and an equal number of novels for critics to realize Leonard wasn’t just a paperback crime or western writer, but a master of dialogue. Ross Macdonald didn’t get a serious look until Eudora Welty went to bat for him. Not to mention that the authors who earn the greatest acclaim are predominantly white men — Chaze is no less discussed than, say, Vera Caspary or Hughes Allison. Legacy lies so far out of noir writers’ control that it has almost nothing to do with their ability to write good, engaging books with lasting appeal.

“At its very best, noir is totally unpretentious,” Atkins told me in Oxford recently, his office shelves covered with pulp editions of crime writing greats,

Something like Black Wings Has My Angel is really a book where the crime is big but the crime is not everything. It’s more about the frailties of human nature and relationships and trust. Thematically it has a million things. When things are laid out plainly for people, it takes a sharp reader to see the complexity or the intricacies of the crime novel.

Noir tends to present huge actions, big downfalls, and authorial empathy — the latter the foundation of great writing. The books are about common people getting into situations they can’t get out of. Its power is in its ability to make readers identify with those characters without having to take on their nihilistic fury and hedonistic pleas. Sunblade calls this alluring point of view the “heistman” philosophy: “People are no damned good. Get yours, boy, while there’s some left. And get it while you’re young enough to live it up.” Looking at the world through this lens is entrancing. It’s to be freed vicariously from the authority figures we bend to everyday, the ones Sunblade openly disdains because they follow the rules and find solace in a social ladder they have to climb and cling to forever; it’s to sit back and watch society burn. I couldn’t stop reading about the adventures of Sunblade and Virginia — as Sunblade says, “The ultimate in horror is, for some unworldly reason, attractive. Hypnotic.” And this adventure had to come to a horrifying end.

Novels like Black Wings don’t display master criminals or overly clever detectives — noir’s best portrayals are gritty and realistic. Black Wings’s armored car heist is something I could imagine reading in a copy of tomorrow’s edition of The New Orleans Advocate or The Times-Picayune. Chaze and authors like him, many of them journalists, seek to provide details and describe scenarios that could really happen along the destructive path of unchecked human nature, resurrecting the headlines that simplified these mortal convolutions.

Because if dealing with the complexities of our crimes, our sins, is what grounds us, then Black Wings is the telltale novel. This is what tortures Sunblade and Virginia underneath their tough veneers: they want to understand those complexities, discover what kind of people they are, and uncover how close they tread to ruin. Sunblade says he is “[b]uilding up an immunity to cowardice by suffering on a small scale and increasing the dose,” an idea that is attractive to the depressed stoic inside us all — and it encapsulates Chaze’s own struggles as an author.

NYRB may bring him some much deserved attention, but Chaze won’t ever know — he passed away 25 years ago with 10 novels to his name, all but Black Wings now long out of print. Every publication must have built Chaze’s immunity to cowardice, each book a dream that slowly burned as he watched. And as I consider the brilliance of Chaze, who is after all only one of countless forgotten authors, I am haunted by the arbitrariness of what fills my bookshelves. But that’s the readers’ burden — we are all pushed toward the spotlight of the new rather than the unkempt weeds of the forgotten. At least Black Wings has the chance to be new again.

¤

Phil McCausland is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.


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