Walk on the dark side: One is a Lonely Number (1952) by Bruce Elliott and Black Wings Has My Angel (1953) by Elliott Chaze
Just recently, I’ve become an avid reader of Paperback Warrior. It’s an invaluable website focused on the pulpy paperback fiction of the 20th century, with a strong emphasis on crime noir, spy thrillers, men’s action-adventure, and Westerns. The website, and its accompanying podcast, are a brilliant window into a fascinating era of fiction, much of it aimed at blue-collar working men in the United States.
The site’s authors are paperback archaeologists of the first rank and their thousands of reviews are always concise and informative. While much of my reading is classic science fiction, Paperback Warrior has recently been my guide into the often brilliantly dark crime fiction of the same era. What follows is my layperson’s reviews of two novels strongly recommended on the site, and which can be found together in a great value ebook available from California-based Stark House Press. One is a Lonely Number (1952) by Bruce Elliott is a real obscurity, a dark and nihilistic escaped-convict story set mostly in Ohio. Black Wings Has My Angel (1953) by Elliott Chaze is one of the most praised crime noir books of its era, and for many years was a very desirable rarity in paperback.
These are both excellent books, terse and powerful and as lively today as they were in the early ‘50s. If you like the sound of them, then I can only again recommend Paperback Warrior and Stark House Press, who I’m sure will guide you and I alike to many more engaging reads from back in the glory days of paperback fiction.
One is a Lonely Number (1952) by Bruce Elliott
Very little is known about Bruce Elliott. He was something of a genre journeyman who wrote for The Shadow magazine in the late ‘40s, put out some books about magic, contributed to science fiction magazines, and wrote One is a Lonely Number which was published by Lion Books in 1952. Lion Books also published Jim Thompson, who is quite well known in the mainstream now, but Elliott enjoyed no such success. Sadly, he was hit by a taxi in 1973 which led to his death at the age of 58 a few months later.
The book sets its stall out early, opening with a spectacularly seedy scene set in a cheapjack hotel in Chicago. We are introduced to the protagonist, Larry Camonille. He is a convict who has recently escaped from the Illinois State Pen at Joliet and has just spent his last five bucks on an encounter with a prostitute. It seems clear from the get-go that Camonille is a dead man walking, in more ways than one - he is described as “thirty-two years old, and dead”. Afflicted by tuberculosis, he has had one lung removed by a prison surgeon and so any major exertion could finish him off. Determined to get to old Mexico, where the climate might help him live longer, Camonille is on the run and on the make. He robs a scuzzy drug den and hops a train, but winds up desperate and penniless in a two-bit Ohio town.
The Shadow magazine was all about “the evil that lurks in the hearts of men”, and while “evil” might be a strong word for Larry Camonille, he’s a seriously bad guy. At no point does Elliott seriously expect us to sympathise with his opportunistic, cruel and frankly somewhat depraved protagonist. Camonille is right at home in the thoroughly corrupt town in which he finds himself, but his encounters with an older widow and a teenage girl derail his plans to get out. Elliott keeps the pages turning right until the end, and his prose is as terse and engaging as his characters are cynical and selfish. Clearly, a book like this with a nihilist streak a mile wide is not for everyone - but fans of dark fiction trying to get into the ‘50s paperback golden age would do well to give this one a read.
Black Wings Has My Angel (1953) by Elliott Chaze
For years, the original printing of Black Wings Has My Angel was a kind of “white whale” for paperback crime fans. Copies were few in number and commanded extremely high prices. The novel had been praised by notable experts in the genre, and this only increased the desirability of the book. Happily, one of the most highly-regarded novels of its kind is now readily available from Stark House Press.
Elliott Chaze was an interesting character. Like many of his contemporaries in the genre, he was both a newspaperman and a US Army veteran. Although World War II ended before his training was complete, he served in the occupation of Japan after 1945 and this inspired his first novel, The Stainless Steel Kimono (1947). When he wrote Black Wings, Chaze was working for the Hattiesburg American newspaper in Mississippi. At times, the book draws on Chaze’s background, including his experience of university life and the news business, and his deep familiarity with Mississippi and Louisiana, where he was born.
Told in the first-person, the book opens - as does One is a Lonely Number - with an encounter between an escaped convict and a prostitute. Tim Sunblade has been out of the joint for some time, laying low and working as a roughneck on the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana. He has a plan, inherited from a cellmate who was shot dead during the prison break. He intends to travel up to Colorado, and knock off an armoured car there for a big payday. The girl he hires for the night, Virginia, proves to be a beautiful and volatile blonde. As they set out together, it seems that the wily and resourceful Virginia could be a tremendous asset to Tim’s plan - or its fatal flaw.
Believe the hype - Black Wings Has My Angel is just a flat-out great book, and a wild ride. Chaze’s prose is superb and often wonderfully poetic, while retaining the tough and concise noir feel. There are so many examples that picking just one is difficult, but Tim’s description of a police siren is memorable:
“You sit in your living room and hear a siren and it’s a small and lonesome thing and all it means to you is that you have to listen to it until it goes away. But when it is after you, it is the texture of the whole world. You will hear it until you die.”
The relationship between Tim and Virginia is ultimately the crux of the book. They are drawn together by a powerful sexual magnetism, and united in their self-destructiveness. There is a kind of love between them, and a kind of hatred. It’s a complex and powerfully written relationship which drives much of this great, surprising and deservedly revered book.
Stark House Press is a real marvel. They ask just $4.99 for both of these books combined, in ebook form, sold directly through their website. It’s an extremely small price to pay for two superb examples of how energetic, thrilling and pitch-dark the best of classic crime noir can be. These books have my highest recommendation and I’m certain to be covering more like them, including from Stark House Press, in the not too distant future.
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