NOBODY’S ANGEL is a slender book with an amazing backstory. It was written in the 1990s by a Chicago cab driver, Jack Clark, who, instead of finding a publisher for it, had 500 copies of the little book printed himself and sold them to his passengers for $5 apiece.
How good could a self-published book by a cabbie be? The answer is simple: NOBODY’S ANGEL is a powerhouse of a book, a genuine work of noir and one of the best books of the year. Clark can write. His first professionally published book, WESTERFIELD’S CHAIN, was nominated for a Shamus Award in 2003. But alas, writing is a cruel, not just, business, as many of us painfully learn, and the author is still driving his Chicago hack to this day.
Clark contacted Charles Ardai, publisher of Hard Case Crime, and asked him to read NOBODY’S ANGEL. Ardai agreed out of the kindness of his heart and was immediately “blown away” by the book. So now it has been published professionally for the first time. I can’t help but wonder how many of Clark’s passengers who bought that book in the 1990s actually read it, and how many just purchased it out of the kindness of their hearts and then tossed it away without further thought. If they did, they made a mistake.
NOBODY’S ANGEL is narrated by Chicago cabbie Eddie Miles, who works the night shift, and is a journey into hell. One night he makes a wrong turn into a deserted alley to relieve himself and stumbles upon a serial killer in a van dumping out the body of a 16-year-old prostitute. His accidental turn saves the girl, as much as anybody can be saved in this nightmarish world. But there is also another serial killer working the streets of the Windy City, and this one is targeting cab drivers. Eddie’s closest friend soon falls victim.
In reading this book, I was immediately reminded of Martin Scorsese’s brilliant movie, Taxi Driver. Just as Scorsese did 20 years previously, Clark captures perfectly the paranoia and madness of the nighttime world. Chicago in this book becomes as much a menacing character as New York did in the movie. But there is one major difference between the movie and the book: the drivers. We know early on in Taxi Driver that Travis Bickle is insane, driven there probably by the jungle hell of Vietnam. But Eddie is an ordinary guy being pushed inexorably towards the edge. He had a good job once, but lost both it and his wife eight years earlier. He has a teenage daughter about the same age as the prostitute. But he has not seen her since his ex-wife moved her to California years ago. When he calls his daughter, his ex-wife immediately changes the phone number. He is just barely holding on in a world spinning out of control.
Eddie is not so much an amateur detective as a man in mourning. He is mourning not only his lost family and murdered friend and the girl he saved who was doomed from the start, but also the lost city of his youth. Clark does something truly remarkable in a mystery novel here. Much like in the great HBO series “The Wire,” Clark chronicles the collapse of America’s industrial base and its impact upon both our cities and the intractable problem of race in America through the story of an ordinary man. Consider this paragraph:
“I passed the old Steward-Warner factory, their original plant, red brick with some white trim --- lord knows how old --- now closed and FOR SALE. ONE MILLION SQUARE FEET, the sign said, 11 ACRES—WILL DIVIDE. And all the jobs gone south or to Mexico, or who-the-hell-knows. And a whole batch of soon–to-be cabdrivers sprinkled around the city waiting for their unemployment to run out. They wouldn’t find any union manufacturing jobs, that much was certain.”
The unions have been busted in this America. What’s left is the city of the rich --- the sparkling high-rises of Lake Shore Drive --- surrounded by the city of the poor and forgotten jammed in hopeless projects and burned-out ruins on the South and West sides. These are ruins waiting to be gentrified by greedy real estate barons and turned into the next trendy neighborhoods of the rich.
Eddie takes us on a nighttime tour of this urban jungle, even the old historic Route 66, now bisected to cut out a poor section of the city. Clark writes, “It was as if some visionary traffic engineer had seen the course the city would take; that Lincoln Park would be for the rich, and the West Side for the poor, and what was the point of a street that connected the two?”
As a national reporter in the 1990s, the same time Clark wrote this book, I often would be sent on assignment to the mean streets of Chicago and came to love the city. I spent many an interesting night on the South and West sides. And I can attest that Clark got it right when he writes about this world, especially places like Cabrini Green, one of the most notorious and gang-infested sections of real estate in America at the time.
And then the fictional Chicago cabbie has to deal with two serial killers. Clark’s writing is so strong and visceral that he builds the suspense and paranoia to almost a breaking point. The reader turns the pages quickly in dread mixed with delight to see who is going to get in Eddie’s cab next. You know it is probably not going to be good. Clark writes scenes that will break your heart. But be forewarned, you are entering the world of noir. In true noir, the darkness does not always herald a dawn yet to come. Some things and people are just too far gone to be fixed or saved.
This is an incredible book that you will not soon forget. Jack Clark is undoubtedly a great driver. I’d probably enjoy taking a nighttime ride with him next time I’m in town. But he needs to be at his computer writing a book or two a year. Assuming, of course, there was any justice in a noir world. The publication of this book is a big step in the right direction. NOBODY’S ANGEL is yet another winner this year from Hard Case Crime. You won’t be disappointed.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 13, 2011