Dames’re Funny Machines:BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL by Elliott Chaze

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The cover artist seems to think our evil heroine is working for the French Resistance.

Our hero is just out of the big house and our heroine is an ex-prostitute he met on the job (hers). They’re of the James M. Cain “We’re both rotten, we belong together” school of sexy criminals who can’t keep their hands off each other and everyone else wishes they were him or her, but they can’t be satisfied with that so they pull a crime that leads to disaster. Where would noir/hardboiled be without ’em?

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Take two

Barry Gifford can’t seem to write about books without name-dropping; his list of great books in one of his collections is mostly stuff like, “I was walking in Times Square with David Lynch this one time and we were talking about film noir,” but he has written about a lot of good books and movies, so I can’t hate him. He did more in this case–half the intro to the NYRB edition of this is him telling you all about it–and helped get this back into print.

While it takes a little long getting where it’s going for my modern temperament, BWHMA is a terrific, bleak crime story that deserves more readers. You like Thompson, Willeford, Cain? You need to read this. There’s the self-destructive couple who can’t stay away from each other out of Cain, the narrator’s a self-pitying criminal who has a great deal of insight about himself out of Willeford, and a climax that lurches toward surrealism in the manner of some of Thompson’s crazier books like THE GETAWAY.

The key to this kind of book is The Dame. Chaze excels in his depiction of Virginia, though she is a creation of the era, too: She looks awesome, she loves sex, and she’s Evil, and that’s pretty much the male noir fantasy woman. Chaze gets away with it because, as is the case so often with fine writing, it’s as much what he comes up with as what he leaves out that makes his characters stick. Knowing too much about Virginia would spoil the suspense about her ultimate plans.

They almost made a movie of this a few years back. I’m glad they didn’t. This was the casting:

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Eh, Absolutely Not, and There Are No Perverted Short People in This, casting for Savage Night is down the hall.

Virginia comes off a lot like Ann Savage in DETOUR.

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I’ll do anything you say, just stop looking at me.

My casting for Virginia would’ve been Peggy Knudsen, particularly how she looked in THE STOLEN LIFE:

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Looks good, has a wise mouth, is evil… HIRED!

Our hero thinks a lot about the crime, before and after they pull it off, and Chaze comes up with a beautiful noir image, the sort of thing the French Siere Noire crowd got all sweaty about: a seemingly bottomless pit, part of an abandoned mining site, into which evidence of the crime is dumped. It’s out there, tugging at the characters’ thoughts, an actual void into which they fear falling but to which they’re drawn. The Existential Hardboiled Void, if you can boil a void.

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While acting like regular suburbanites before the big caper, our hero wears a suit and acts all respectable. Our whore-with-a-heart-of-bitcoin plays the good wife as long as she can (about three seconds) before turning the garden hose on the suit while our hero is wearing it.

Then she says this:

“I can stand anything in the book but gentlemen. Because I’ve spent a lot of time, too much time with them, and I know why gentlemen are what they are. They decide to be that way after they’ve tried all the real things and flopped at them. They’ve flopped at women. They’ve flopped at standing up on their hind legs and acting like men… They’ve flopped at being individuals. So they say to themselves one fine morning: ‘What can I be that’s no trouble at all and that doesn’t amount to a damned thing, but yet will make everyone look up to me?’ The answer’s simple. Be a gentleman. Take life flat on your back, cry in private, and then in a well-modulated voice… A gentleman is a door mat with all the scratch gone from it.”

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That’s why people are villains in hardboiled stories, and why readers like me love books like this.

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