Today marks Bill Pronzini’s 70th birthday, and I want to join the discussion on the blogosphere with my own tribute to this admirable author of mystery, suspense, Western, and critical works. Pronzini is a well-known and respected author, but he’s something of a rarity on the modern mystery scene: he knows a lot about the genre’s history.
His collection of books and pulp magazines is massive, and he has written and contributed to several reference volumes, including three books on “alternative classics” (i.e. books so bad that they become good): Gun in Cheek, Son of Gun in Cheek, and Six-Gun in Cheek (the final volume specifically on Westerns).
He and his wife Marcia Muller teamed up to create a classic reference volume, 1001 Midnights. And his output as a writer and editor is extremely prolific.
One of the best things about Bill Pronzini is his fairness to both “sides” of the genre. He can praise John Dickson Carr and Raymond Chandler in the same sentence, and his praise will be articulate and intelligent. Pronzini’s enthusiasm for the hardboiled/noir subgenre got me interested in reading more works in such a vein.
Recently, I read the book Books to Die For, a book which I have criticised heavily for a variety of reasons. However, certain individual contributions are brilliant. Pronzini’s was one of them. He chose to talk about an author I’d never heard of before, Elliott Chaze, and his novel Black Wings Has My Angel.
Pronzini’s article begins with a loving description of those paperback originals he grew up with, and he eventually focuses on this book, Black Wings Has My Angel. The cover blurb is uninspiring, but Pronzini assures us that in between the covers is an extraordinary book. And so he describes it, giving you just enough plot to whet your appetite without giving too much away.
His praise is so enthusiastic that I felt I had to give this book a try: “Black Wings Has My Angel is a book that must be experienced, not read quickly for casual entertainment. It makes demands on the reader, as any piece of quality fiction does, and delivers hammer blows where other noir novels provide light raps.”
So here is my tribute to Bill Pronzini: but instead of focusing on Bill Pronzini the crime writer, I want to zoom in on Bill Pronzini the fellow enthusiast, the aficionado whose opinions I respect and whose knowledge of the genre I admire.
Black Wings Has My Angel is the story of Tim Sunblade— and that isn’t his real name. It’s a fake name chosen by the narrator because it sounds cheerful and positive… and goodness knows, he needs whatever cheerfulness he can get. Tim inhabits a very dark universe, one without much hope or joy… and then, in walks Virginia, a stunning blonde with violet eyes.
Tim goes head-over-heels for her, but he doesn’t know why. Oftentimes, life seems like it would be much easier without Virginia around. She’s a grade-A bitch, completely unrepentant and with a heart of stone. She often seems to enjoy making Tim’s life harder, and although Tim knows that this woman will be his undoing, he cannot bring himself to leave her. Together, Tim and Virginia collaborate on a plan that should leave them set for life… and I cannot bring myself to reveal more of the plot.
This is a book that sucked me in more the more I read it. I was interested from the first page, but slowly I became even more interested in these characters and their fates. I was particularly surprised with just how good the writing is. Some very dark things occur in this novel, and Tim is a complex character. He can be ruthless, but he isn’t amoral like master thief Parker: some of his actions continue to haunt him long after he’s committed them, and the psychological portrait we get of Tim is a complex and fascinating one.
I was also very interested by all the social commentary. This is particularly evident in the section of the novel that takes place in New Orleans. Tim and Virginia find themselves in very different company, and Tim takes us through the gang and sardonically comments on how they feel the need to do silly things to remind them that they’re special, unique individuals. Heavenly hash plays a particularly interesting role in all of this, and there are several moments of imagery that fascinated me.
I hope readers will forgive my vagueness. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, because, well, it’s kind of obvious where it’s headed, so I want to conserve as much of the surprises as I can. Granted, the author doesn’t try to pull out a shocking twist ending where we find out Virginia was just a repressed memory and was never really there. (Indeed, the narrator practically tells you how everything will end.) But nevertheless there are several scenes and scenarios that did surprise me for one reason or another, and I don’t want to ruin any of these moments. And it’s difficult to describe my fascination with this book without ruining these moments.
Black Wings Has My Angel is not a mystery, but a story that revolves around a crime and its consequences, and it’s very dark. My attempts to describe the plot have probably revealed that it is a very unusual book for me to review. Either way, due to its dark nature, it might not be a book for everyone. However, I found myself enjoying it tremendously – and I’m the kind of reader who doesn’t always enjoy noir. If you’re already a fan of the noir subgenre, I think you will enjoy this book very much. It’s a well-told story with engaging characters and moral situations, and it sucks you in more and more the further you get into it.
This is really an extraordinary book, and I’d like to give my thanks to Bill Pronzini for recommending it. Otherwise, this experience could have easily passed me by, with me none the wiser.