What a Reader Wants

“To be sure of getting something above the average,” Edmund Wilson tells us, in his disparaging take on the genre, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories” (October 14, 1944), “I waited for new novels by writers who are particularly esteemed by connoisseurs.” But Wilson is repeatedly disappointed, in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, in Agatha Christie, in Dashiell Hammett. Wilson acknowledges Graham Greene may be on to something: “The spy story may perhaps only now be realizing its poetic possibilities.” And Wilson separates “the psychological horror [story] an entirely different matter.” But of the detective story, he has trouble understanding its popularity. He ascribes the taste for it to a search for guilt in a world where nearly everyone seems in some way partly to blame. Since no one is trusted, everyone under suspicion, the detective performs the clarifying and clear calm act of calling out the true bad guy, and everyone else, including the reader, is free to go.

For readers who rely upon the opinions of connoisseurs, The New York Review Books: Classics is the place to go. From its online About description:

The NYRB Classics series is dedicated to publishing an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times and of various sorts. The series includes nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres, tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of. NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.

Maybe “the classroom” and “discoveries” serve different purposes. In any case, last week, in another walk around the block, I pulled a NRYB Classics out of the neighborhood library box down around the corner in the lot at the Line 15 stop. It bears an odd title, mainly for a syntax which seems uncharacteristic of the sentence structure found in the book: “Black Wings Has My Angel.” Written by Elliott Chaze, it’s the only one of his novels worth reading, according to connoisseur Barry Gifford, who took on the “Introduction” responsibility for the 2016 NYRB reissue of the 1953 Gold Medal Books original. It certainly is a discovery.

“Black Wings” has the look and feel and taste and aftertaste of the detective story genre, but it’s not a detective story. There is a detective, an FBI agent, in fact, but he remains a distant foil, lurking off center stage like a bad guy. Gifford thinks Billy Wilder “would have been the ideal director” for a movie make. I’m thinking Alfred Hitchcock, or the Coen Brothers. “Black Wings” is a dark, dark, dark situation comedy. Gifford also points to Chaze’s obvious study and use of the Hemingway style: “brief, often blunt sentences devoid of unnecessary frills or explication.” That is mostly true, but for the plot and themes, a greater literary debt is probably owed Theodore Dreiser and the characteristics of the Naturalist school of literature: the ironies of fate; the missing brick responsible eventually for the collapse of the wall; chance reversals; inescapable socioeconomic determinations; greed for a wealth and lifestyle little understood by a protagonist looking to get ahead of society’s mind your manners expectations and aversions to rumination.

Though we know the first person narrator protagonist of “Black Wings” is a bad guy almost from the get go, we’ve a lot to learn about him. His fatal flaw, to use a Naturalist literary term, is falling in love. How love and bad guys get defined and treated are themes that are illustrated outside the norms of genre literature. His disappointments, his reversals, are tragicomic. His attitude might even borrow something from Camus’s “The Stranger.” “Black Wings Has My Angel” is a study of the outsider who thinks he wants in to something he doesn’t fully understand until it’s much too late. He isn’t a true existential character, because his decisions are too fraught with misunderstandings, false preconceptions and assumptions, misused talents.

Is the protagonist of “Black Wings” a free agent? Or is he at the mercy of an impossibly complicated series of chance events leading inexorably to one ignoble unavoidable end? Of protagonists, we usually ask what it is they want, and what it is that’s preventing them (the antagonist) from getting what they want. One thing he wants is to confess his story, but his story is not an apology. What he wants changes throughout the story and at the end remains ambiguous and irrelevant, such that we might not get what Edmund Wilson saw to be the attraction of the detective story – we might not get the feeling we are free to go.