Friday, March 30, 2012

Forgotten Books: One is a Lonely Number - Bruce Elliott/Black Wings Has My Angel - Elliott Chaze

The latest double reprint volume from Stark House is a study in both contrasts and similarities. Let's get some of the similarities out of the way first.

The authors, Bruce Elliott and Elliott Chaze, have a name in common, obviously. Both novels are noirish, hardboiled crime yarns originally published in the Fifties. And both are very, very good.

But the two authors have very different backgrounds. Bruce Elliott was a stage magician who wrote books on that subject in addition to turning out pulp novels and working as an editor on various magazines. Elliott Chaze was a small-town journalist in the South who had a long career as a newspaper reporter and editor as well as being a novelist.

ONE IS A LONELY NUMBER was originally published by Lion Books in 1952, BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL by Gold Medal in 1953. Both novels spent decades in obscurity, but in different ways. BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL was famously obscure, if you know what I mean. Unlike most Gold Medal novels from that era, it was extremely difficult to find, as Bill Crider points out in his introduction to this reprint. A number of articles were written about how good it was, one of the very best novels ever published by Gold Medal, but most fans had never read it and held out few hopes of ever reading it because it was so rare. ONE IS A LONELY NUMBER was just flat-out obscure, a Forgotten Book if ever there was one. I've been reading this sort of stuff for more than forty years now, and I'd never even heard of it until Stark House announced this edition. As Ed Gorman says in his introduction, "I have no idea how a novel this good could have been around for more than sixty years without hardboiled readers being aware of it." I can only echo that comment.

As for the books themselves . . .

ONE IS A LONELY NUMBER is the story of Larry Camonille, an escaped convict who's trying to get to Mexico because he has tuberculosis and thinks he'll live longer in the warm, dry air. One of his lungs has already been removed in the prison hospital before he broke out, and the other one is in bad shape. I don't think Elliott ever mentions what Larry's crime was, but it's established that he's a former musician (a trumpet player) and that he's never killed anyone. In need of money, he takes a job as a dishwasher in a small rural roadhouse, and wouldn't you know it, two beautiful women wind up interested in him, one older, one dangerously younger. And as Larry eventually discovers, both of them have plans for him, plans involving crimes that could send him back to prison or even get him killed.

Larry is about as unsympathetic a protagonist as you could find, but to Elliott's great credit, he makes the reader care about Larry despite that. The plot twists and turns with great skill, and Elliott's prose is fast and lean, just like it should be. The atmosphere of doom that hangs over this novel is powerful, and to quote Gorman again, "Even Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis would find this book a downer." Larry Camonille never really gives up in his struggle to be free, though, and I think that's what makes him oddly admirable in spite of his flaws. Because of all this, I found ONE IS A LONELY NUMBER to be one of the best noir novels I've ever read.

Now, moving on to BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL, when you finally get your hands on a book you've heard great things about for years or even decades, a book you figured you'd probably never get to read, there's always a nagging worry that it's not going to live up to its reputation. That was certainly true in my case when I started BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL.

Luckily, it didn't take me long to realize that wasn't going to be a problem. This book also concerns an escaped convict, and of course he meets a beautiful woman. Only one, though, in BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL, and the crime that gets them both into deep trouble is the narrator's idea, not the blonde's.

I'm not really a fan of Chaze's dense prose. The long, long paragraphs and the scarcity of dialogue at times bother me. I'm accustomed to much leaner, faster, and more hardboiled writing in this sort of novel, and that's what works best for me. Where Chaze excels, though, is in his characterization. The relationship between Tim and Virginia is the dominant factor in this novel, and it's developed in very powerful fashion. They love each other, they hate each other, they fight, they scheme together, they certainly don't trust each other. The reader never really knows what's going to happen next, and that sense of things being off-kilter is what makes BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL such a fine novel.

Taken together, this is one of the best volumes Stark House has published so far. ONE IS A LONELY NUMBER is the better of the two books, I think, but they're both well worth reading and if you're a fan of noir fiction and haven't ordered this one yet, you definitely should.


J F Norris said...

The universe is trying to tell me something: this is the fourth item about Chaze's book I've come across in as many weeks. I do like what Stark House has chosen to reprint. The original paperback of BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL is ridiculously scarce and the few copies out there for sale are far too much for me to shell out for a vintage paperback. There was a recent reissue by Centipede Press too with an intro by Bill Pronzini. So many expert opinions I value. Now I'll be able to buy a copy and read it. Thanks for this.

Walker Martin said...

Another must have book from Stark House. I received my copy a couple days ago from Sure beats paying the high prices for the vintage paperbacks.

Ed Gorman said...

Thank you for such a fine, detailed and insightful review of the books, James. I'm glad you agree with me--not many writers would dare present a protagonist as unsympathetic as Larry. I remember reading this when I was eighteen or so. I was heavy into college existentialism then and was convinced Bruce Elliot was a more daring writer than Albert Camus--at least a crazier one. But when I shopped the little luridly covered paperback around I didn't find any takers.Thanks again. Ed

Shay said...

Black Wings Has My Angels is available online at The download includes the very noir-ish cover (that doesn't have anything to do with any scene from the book, if I remember correctly, but it's a great cover).

(There has to be a reason my second authentication word is "oftsperm" but I don't think I want to find out why).

Anonymous said...

Shay, the "free" online versions of a particular site are simply scanned and presented filled with whatever errors happen to come up. Also, where copyrights and other reprint rights are involved (not so in this case), they are belligerently ignored. Patronizing this site for "free" books is feeding the wrong type of people. They'll make all your e-book fears (piracy, etc.) come true. Be a good citizen and leave them be. If enough people do the right thing, it may have some impact.