Cliff Wettermark is a burnt-out case. After burning his bridges with the Associated Press, the Times-Picayune, and a hack PR job for a chiropractor, he’s now stuck in a dead-end job as a reporter for the Catherine, Mississippi Call. He lives in a dump next to a couple of Baptist zealots. He owes the bank $600. His wife needs her teeth fixed and he has something on the side of his nose the local GP says looks cancerous.
As Wettermark opens, he’s sitting outside the office of the local bank manager waiting to ask for an extension on the loan when all hell breaks loose. A bank robber has just held up the drive-up window of another branch and made off with ten grand. Wettermark heads off to get the story, but he can’t shake the bandit’s action from his thoughts: “No wheedling or simpering. It contradicted everything in Wettermark’s experience with the process of securing money from a bank.”
Wettermark has managed to shake the booze that got him into trouble with the AP, and cigarettes, too. But his troubles, the endless tedium of life in Catherine (“a long gray nothing, starting with nothing and leading to nothing”), and the lingering thoughts of having enough cash to live for years without a care lead him to pick up a fifth before covering a local televised press conference. By the time of the show, he’s well-lubed and fires off an unplanned, sarcastic question at the visiting senator. And soon enough, he’s out of a job.
Which leads back to thoughts about the bank job. The reality of the act had opened his eyes to new possibilities:
He had known, of course, that banks could be robbed but before today it never entered his mind that he himself could bring off such a thing. He had thought of a bank robbery the way he thought of having a girl when he was fourteen–it could be done, it had been done, but only by experts who possessed extraordinary courage, skill and persistence. Actually there wasn’t much to it once you had your first girl. The astounding revelation was that some girls really and truly wanted to be bad, and apparently there were banks in the same category.
The quality of the local police also helps build up his confidence in his ability to pull off a similar heist. Of the town’s captain of detectives, Wettermark muses, “He was able to make drinking a cup of coffee look as if the fate of the nation depended on it and this was the primary reason, if not the only reason, for his promotion to captain. He could not track an army tank in fresh mud.”
And so Wettermark stakes out a bank in a town a few counties away and begins making preparations. I won’t spoil the book by revealing whether he successes and what happens after, except to say that Chaze manages to make it suspenseful, comical, sickening, and vivid with some of the best writing in the novel:
He was sweating heavily beneath the rubberized coat. He tried to kid himself into believing that this wasn’t what it was, that this wasn’t the edge of the platform and he wasn’t going to have to make the dive at all; that he was simply farting around out in the country and when he got to Knoll Springs he would stop at a filling station and get a cold drink and exchange a bit of rural-route shit with the attendant. They loved to joke about motorcycles. They grinned and said: “You want me to wipe that windshield, suh?” Or they said: “I see you got yourself some pure-dee air-conditionin’.”
The writing is what makes Wettermark more than a run-of-the-mill mystery. Chaze, who worked for the Hattiesburg American for thirty years, knew his setting well: the woods and swamps, the sleepy towns, the cheesy politicans and slyly dumb cops, the racism and veiled caste system. He’d also written novels before Wettermark. The Stainless Steel Kimono, about about a group of American paratroopers in Japan, was reputed to be a favorite of Hemingway’s, and his 1953 pulp novel, Black Wings Has My Angel is considered by some to be, in Ed Gorman’s words, “the single best novel Gold Medal published during its heyday”–which is the tough-guy crime writing equivalent being given an honorary National Book Award by Philip Roth.
I do have to say that Chaze considerably undermines the fine writing of most of Wettermark with the clumsy plotting of the book’s last twenty-some pages. But the narrative voice is what makes or breaks most crime novels, and even on page one, Chaze’s writing made me want to follow wherever his story might take me. He’s funny, cynical but self-deprecating, succinct, and a master of picking out little images–the stick orange plastic chair outside the bank manager’s office, the town mayor’s penchant for publicity shots of him pointing at empty space where some warehouse or fast food restaurant is going to be built–that stick in memory long after the book is finished. If the rest of his books have anything like the same style, I look forward to reading more.
Bill Pronzini wrote an admiring piece on Chaze’s work on his Mystery File blog a couple of years ago, which prompted a similar reflection by fellow writer Ed Gorman: “Chaze would have been right at home with the other hardboiled greats, Fredric Brown, Peter Rabe, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford and many others.” There was a report back in 2007 that Elijah Wood was going to produce a film version of Black Wings Has My Angel, but it appears that may have gone the way of John Leguizamo’s Esquivel bio-pic and other much-anticipated unproduced works. Black Mask Books has reissued Black Wings and has Amazon in Kindle format, but since it’s in the public domain, you can just download a PDF version of the book from Scribd.com thanks to a user named jvorzimmer. You can also find biographical sketches of Chaze on the Mississippi Writers and Musicians site as well as on Murder with Southern Hospitality, a special exhibit site from the Ole Miss library.
Find a copy
- Find it at Amazon.com: Wettermark
- Find it at Amazon.co.uk: Wettermark
- Find it at AddAll.com: Wettermark
Wettermark, by Elliott Chaze
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969