When I first moved to Flagstaff in 1994, my buddy Jim introduced me to Black Lizard books. They’re a series of crime novels edited by Barry Gifford. Gifford had made it big in the ‘80s with his Sailor and Lula novels, the most famous of which was adapted into the film Wild at Heart. Gifford parlayed his fame into bringing great mid-century crime writers back into print. His series introduced me to some of my favorites: Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Jim Thompson and David Goodis. Every time I saw one of the distinctive Black Lizard covers at Bookmans, I’d buy it and get blown away again.
As luck would have it, Jim performed a reading with Gifford last month in West Hollywood. After the reading, he introduced me to Gifford. The three of us chatted about the old Black Lizard books, and Gifford asked, “Have you heard of Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliot Chaze?” I had not. Gifford said, when Vintage bought Black Lizard, the author had one last book in production. Black Wings Has My Angel. The new publishers didn’t like the book. They killed the deal. Chaze died shortly thereafter. Gifford didn’t give up. It took him 25 years, but he found a new publisher for Black Wings, and it was released in 2016. “You have to read it,” he said. As we chatted, he brought the conversation back to Black Wings two more times and summed it up the same way: You have to read it.
So I did. And he’s right. I had to.
Black Wings starts with Tim Sunblade. He’s just finished a stint on an oil well and is in southern Louisiana, taking a bath and waiting for a hooker named Virginia. She knocks on the door. He opens it and falls in love. Tim and Virginia have sex for the next three days. She keeps telling him that she’ll stay as long as he pays. Tim squirreled away six months of his roughnecking money, so he has enough for Virginia, but he also has that money earmarked for something special. During a recent spell in prison, another convict explained the plan for the perfect heist. The convict died, Tim escaped, and now it’s time for him to hit the road and put the plan into action. He brings Virginia along. The novel then becomes part road trip, part heist drama, and part something fresh and original.
The first thing that’s notable about Black Wings is how meticulously the heist is plotted. Tim has every detail lined up. He has backup plans for when things go wrong. He’s so smart about it that you feel like he could get away with it. And the smartest thing he does is work to earn the money he needs until it’s time for the heist, so you know he won’t get caught doing something stupid like knocking off a gas station on the way. He keeps his eye on the big prize.
The second notable thing—and the thing that makes Black Wings great—is the relationship between Tim and Virginia. They meet as a business transaction. They have no reason to trust each other and, in fact, good reason not to. “Tim” is not really Tim’s name. “Virginia” is not really Virginia’s. Everything they share about each other is a misrepresentation at first. But over the course of the months they spend crossing the country and preparing for the heist, we get to know them as characters. They get to know each other as people. They grow into a couple and Chaze carries us through every step. Surely, when the book was originally published in 1953, readers would’ve seen Virginia as a femme fatale leading Tim to his ruin. Since the culture around the book has changed over the past 65 years, Virginia will look different to contemporary audiences. She has her own motivations. She looks out for herself. She’s driven and fiercely independent. And, most importantly, once Tim stops paying for sex, she becomes his equal. It’s rare to see such a strong female character in a ‘50s crime novel written by a man, but Chaze somehow pulls it off.
Gifford told us that Black Wings is the only good novel by Chaze. That we shouldn’t bother hunting down the others. I’m not so sure. Black Wings is so good that I want to read everything else Chaze has written. I might go on the hunt anyway. For now, I’m just enjoying the fact that, a quarter century after I first fell in love with Black Lizard books, Gifford has turned me on to one more lost classic.