femme fatale

BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL BY ELLIOTT CHAZE

You and me, she said, could take on the world. And it was easy to believe her, although I knew that she didn’t need any help with that. If she had wanted the world, she could have taken it all by herself. She was high at the time, of course. It was midnight when she called, and I had to be up for work in six hours. She wanted me to watch her sing at a gay bar in town. I couldn’t say no, partly out of a desire to see her and partly out of fear of what she would do if she was disobeyed. She was a deadly kind of beautiful, the kind that if you felt breathless in her presence you couldn’t say with any confidence whether it was love or cyanide poisoning. I was familiar with femmes fatales from films and books, with cold-hearted, dangerous dames with sultry looks, but in real life it wasn’t so glamorous or sexy or exciting. I felt like an amateur snake charmer who is happy just to get through each day without fatal injury. This girl will be the death of me, I once told a friend, and for the first time in my life I meant it.

“Thinking back, I remember the stupidest things; the way there was a taut crease just above her hips, in the small of her back. The way she smelled like a baby’s breath, a sweet barely there smell that retreated and retreated, so that no matter how close you got to it you weren’t sure it was there. The brown speckles in the lavender-gray eyes, floating very close to the surface when I kissed her, the eyes wide open and aware. But not caring. The eyes of a gourmet offered a stale chunk of bread, using it of necessity but not tasting it any more than necessary.”

Black Wings Has My Angel was published in 1953, a little after the greats of hard-boiled crime fiction – Chandler, Hammett,  Cain et al – had produced the majority of their best and most cherished work. In fact, one could argue that this goes some way to explaining not only why it was largely forgotten for a number of years but also many of its merits. Those writers were trailblazers, of course, but to be at the vanguard of something means you have no real reference points, no conventions to work within, and no one to learn from; you have to find your own way and make your own mistakes. The novels written during that golden period of the 30’s and 40’s are undeniably appealing, but often the characters lack depth and the plots are convoluted or under-developed. Elliott Chaze, however, was a refiner, in that he took what was already established and gave it finesse. The end result is noir with a kind of Stendhalian sweep, a genuine sense of tragedy, and characters you care about.

One of these characters is Kenneth McLure, aka Tim Sunblade, who narrates the action. My initial impression of Kenneth was that he was the archetypal hard-boiled tough guy. He’s an ex-con, who, he tells us, tried to get himself beaten during his time in prison in order to break the monotony of solitary confinement; he also contemplates murdering anyone who might stand in his way. His narrative style is, as one would expect, punchy and broad-shouldered, featuring lines like: ‘[I let] my mind coast. It needed a lot of coasting.’ Yet, as the story unfolds, Chaze does something unexpected: he allows you to see different sides to Kenneth, his sensitive and vulnerable sides. He is, for example, haunted by the death of his friend, and particularly the image of his bloody, mangled face. He does bad things in the novel, certainly, but he exhibits a conscience at times; in fact, the climax of the story, and his desire to look deep into the abyss of the abandoned shaft, is all about his guilt. Kenneth isn’t a sociopath, like the continental op, he is capable of feeling fear, shame, sorrow and love. He even waxes sentimental about his home town and his childhood sweetheart.

Consequently, one feels as though one gets to know McLure, including both his qualities and his faults, his strengths and his weaknesses. Chaze endeavoured to make him believable, to make him psychologically sound, if not entirely sane. We are told that he was in solitary confinement, as noted previously, and this allows one to make sense of the regular, romanticised, descriptions of scenery and wide open spaces in his narration. Moreover, his conflicted attitude towards death, and his desire to make the most of his time on earth – as though he has been told that he has only twelve months to live – could be put down to his experiences in the war, where he was injured in action. If you have stared death in the face, it is easy to see how it could become more monstrous and yet easier to confront in future. Having said all that, one does wonder whether the author was actually suggesting that Kenneth’s behaviour is a direct result of his head-wound, such that his ‘bad side’ is physical not psychological. This is not a ludicrous idea, although it is less interesting for me personally.

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I mentioned love in the previous paragraph, and that may have raised a few eyebrows. Relations between men and women in noir tends towards the wildcat sort. Lust, sure, obsession, maybe, but love seems like a stretch. However, there are moments between Kenneth and Virginia that are genuinely touching. Once again, I believed in them, I, specifically, believed in them as a couple. She is a looker, of course, with legs like a champion racehorse, and he is rough and manly, and there is plenty of good fucking throughout the novel; but there is also tenderness, intimacy; there are, for example, the numerous references to her smell; and there is a scene in which they swap ice back and forth between their mouths, and another in which Kenneth tells Virginia things he never thought he’d tell anybody. In these ways, Black Wings Has My Angel is not a novel about meeting the wrong person at the wrong time, but maybe the right person in the wrong circumstances.

It is also, however, a novel about money and class. I have not written in detail about Virginia so far, partly because she adheres a little too closely to the noir femme fatale stereotype. She is a wise-cracking whore, who doesn’t sleep for thrills anymore. Yet Chaze gives her a backstory too, in which it is revealed that she was once well-to-do. This is important, not because it justifies her expensive tastes, but because it creates tension between the couple, which, in turn, allows Chaze, via Kenneth, to lambast high society. Almost everyone in Black Wings Has My Angel is afforded some level of sympathy, with the exceptions being the police – predictably enough – and the rich, who are thieves of a more socially acceptable sort or idiots. What’s more, towards the end, after he has become moneyed himself, Kenneth states that while he had always wanted to live ‘lazily and glossily’, he has come to realise that it weakens and demotivates you, that it makes you flabby and frivolous. And isn’t that the worst kind of living of all?

HANGOVER SQUARE BY PATRICK HAMILTON

The homies used to tell me that she wasn’t no good
But I’m the maniac in black, Mr. Snoop Eastwood
So I figure niggaz wouldn’t trip with mine
Guess what? Got gaffled by one time

[Bitches Aint Shit by Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg]

The above proves that it can happen to the best [or worst, depending on your point of view] of us. We’ve all been there: infatuated with someone who is clearly rotten to the core. Indeed, a friend of mine is currently embroiled in just such a situation, the poor sod. The lady in question is clearly not interested in my buddy; she ignores him most of the time, takes his money, has him chauffeuring her [and her family!!] around. And what is his response to this obviously unpleasant behaviour? He has just bought a flash car in order to try and impress her. Oh yes he has.

You see, there’s no helping, nor reasoning with, people like my friend. Short of a physical intervention one will never be able to prevent him from succumbing to the temptation to return to the poisoned stream that both refreshes and harms him. He is, rather unfortunately, just like George Harvey Bone, the main focus of Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. The novel opens with Bone returning from a holiday, intent on murdering a young woman called Netta. Evidently he went away in order to forget about her, to get over her, and evidently it hasn’t worked. [As a side note, anyone who travels to Maidenhead in order to make themselves feel better is asking for trouble anyway].

Once the reader is introduced to Netta one instantly understands why George wants to kill her. That she doesn’t have any redeeming qualities is necessary, however, because it emphasises just how desperate, just how far gone, Bone is. She is a manipulative, callous, money-grubbing, tart-without-a-heart. Her sidekick Peter, whom Bone also despises, mostly out of jealousy, is just as loathsome. Moreover, just in case we find ourselves, during the reading of this book, able to go either way in our appraisal of these two characters Hamilton makes sure to tip us over the edge into clear antipathy by making them fascist sympathisers [Peter especially].

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[An English pub in the 1940’s]

Bone doesn’t always eye Netta with murderous intent, of course. He only wants to kill her when experiencing what he calls his dead moods, which he compares to the shutter of a camera coming down. In the novel there is no sort of diagnosis, or psychoanalysis, but these moods are clearly some form of psychosis. When in them George becomes to a large extent unresponsive to external stimuli, is less easily manipulated, is angrier, but is confidently full of [an unsavory] purpose. Hilariously, Netta likes him more when he is like this, although I am pretty sure the moral of Hamilton’s tale isn’t to get the girl: be mental and vow to kill her.

When not in a dead mood Bone is exceedingly compliant. He does Netta’s bidding without complaint, he follows her around, he pays for her drinks, takes her out to expensive places; he is a pathetic specimen who serves as the butt of Peter and Netta’s wholly unfunny jokes. Crucially, Bone knows that he is being treated badly; he isn’t entirely deluded, but feels as though he can’t help himself where this girl is concerned, that he needs her on whatever basis is available to him.

I’m not going to say anything about how all this turns out, whether happily or unhappily, but I do want to make a point of saying how funny I think Hangover Square is. For a novel principally concerned with alcoholics, horrible fuckers, madness and murder it is to Hamilton’s great credit that he manages to make it very funny indeed. My favourite moment being when Netta mistreats Bone [again], and he incredulously declares something along the lines of she must be capable of feeling something! Oh no, my poor Bone, no no no no.

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE BY JAMES M. CAIN

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You want me to tell you what I know? What I know is that there was no postman; that was just a ruse, see? But there was a dame, there’s always a dame. Cora had fulsome red lips and dark blue eyes, like someone had smacked her up; and you thought about actually doing it, is how Frank told it, but you knew that if you tried you’d end up coming off worse than she did. She liked it rough, he said, but in the end things got so rough they couldn’t make it work.Yeah, she was a real puma, but not as real as the really real puma that Madge gave Frank. Anyways, Frank wanted Cora to ditch her old man and go on the road, but she had her feet under the table and wouldn’t budge. A real homebody. Cora was married to the Greek, but trying to tie down a woman like that is like trying to juggle water. So Cora comes up with this plan, and course something’s gotta die. A woman like that don’t make plans and everyone lives happily ever after. Now, I’ve never tried to kill a man myself, but Frank said it ain’t as easy as you’d think, like whistling. And, boy, those two sure gave whistling all they had. Greeks must have hard skulls, Frank said, and the harder the skull the harder you gotta hit ’em. If you want the dame, you gotta take out the husband, that’s how he saw it. Course the auto court was part of it too, and any money coming your way. But that was mostly Cora, Frank said. If you want my opinion, she was nasty; and not good nasty, but nasty nasty. And, yeah, good nasty too I guess, because a man don’t go for murdering the husband of a girl who ain’t taking good care of him too, if you know what I mean. A sordid business all right, is how I’d describe it. From start to finish. And knowing what you know about the finish ought to give you some idea of how sordid it was from the start. But that’s all I got; Frank don’t talk much, as you know. He’s short on the details; he’s not one for describing everything. And you won’t get a word out of the dame. Not anymore. What do I think it all means? That there’s a lot of shit can hit the fan when the wrong man meets the wrong woman at the right time.