My 2010 painting ‘Her Lips Were Wet With Venom’ – from the Altar series, mocked up as a cover for the incredible Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze. If my teenage years as a voracious reader were dedicated to the horror genre, then my twenties were all about crime fiction. It was a good time to be reading it too, as that was the era of James Ellroy’s ascendence with his LA Quartet, and thanks to films like Pulp Fiction, publishers were encouraged to bring back into print many a long-lost classic from the 1950’s. This in turn led to critical re-evaluation of pulp crime novels, with paid pifflers finding that while they may not be highbrow literary works, these books have an irresistible energy and a bluntness of approach that makes you realise that every minute wasted slogging through an A.S. Byatt novel is time you will never get back. Of course, a lot of shit got republished as part of the cash-in, and you had to maintain your instincts, seeking out the titles that seemed to have genuinely earned their reputation. And this book is one of them. From its irresistible title, to its character’s names (Tim Sunblade!) to its simple premise – an unapologetically Alpha dude and a femme fatale hit the road together, looking to make a big score – this is the literary equivalent of The Damned’s ‘New Rose’, in that it’s uncomplicated, shorn of all pretension, and taking no prisoners. Chaze knew exactly what he was doing, as this excerpt clearly demonstrates:

“She was breathing oddly, her shoulders moving as if her lungs were upstairs there, in her shoulders. She wore a T shirt of some kind of cocoa toweling and when she leaned back hard against the seat it was a splendid thing to see. Her skirt was gray flannel and it fitted as if it had been smeared on her, and below it were the legs. You hear and read about legs. But when you see the really good ones, you know the things you read and heard were a lot of trash.”

The absolute galactic opposite of Sally Rooney, and all the better for it. But Chaze was also keen to explore the deeper psychological motivations of his protagonists, bringing a capital ‘R’ Romantic sensibility along with his whisky and pistols. This carefully balanced oscillation between the frontal lobes and the lizard brain is how the book has earned a justified cult following. It won’t surprise you to learn that Hollywood has been unable to help itself and is trying to get a film version made, but so far we have been spared. The book is perfect, just as it is. Recommended.

Here’s the original painting I used for the cover:

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