Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (1978): Damned Damned Damned
Hard-boiled crime writers like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler were vastly influential on a whole range of 20th century literature, except, I think, horror fiction. With their post-Hemingway style of terseness and understatement they seem to be the antithesis of horror writing. While these authors got their start in the pulp magazines of the pre-WWII era just like H.P. Lovecraft, it's only been within the last 10 or 15 years that Lovecraft has been taken seriously by more mainstream academics, literary critics, and taste-makers, while those crime novelists have been lauded for decades.
Falling Angel (Fawcett Popular Library 1982 edition above) that the genres of hardboiled crime and horror met, thanks to author William Hjortsberg. He has said he came up with the idea when in high school, winning an award for a short story whose first lines were "Once upon a time, the devil hired a private detective." Brilliant.
Set in a wonderfully-depicted New York City 1959, Falling Angel is the story of hard-boozing private detective Harry Angel ("I always buy myself a drink after finding a body. It's an old family custom"), hired by the mysterious Mr. Cyphre to find the missing '40s crooner Johnny Favorite, a big band star very much like Sinatra. Horribly injured physically and psychologically while serving as an entertainer in the war, Johnny ends up in a VA hospital, but then disappears one night...
Angel tracks down Johnny's former doctor, who then turns up dead; next Angel speaks to an old band member of Johnny's, "Toots" Sweet (but of course) who tells him Johnny was mixed up in voodoo and the black arts, can you dig it, and crossed ethnic barriers no one dared cross in the 1940s when he became the lover of a voodoo priestess. Toots ends up dead too. Horribly dead. You get the picture. Angel ends up involved with the priestess's daughter, Epiphany Proudfoot, a carnally-driven young woman who believes acrobatic sex is how we speak to the voodoo gods. Awesome.
There's more; much more. Falling Angel is, in a word, spectacular. It's inventive while playing by the "rules" of detective fiction; it's appropriately bloody and violent; its unholy climax in an abandoned subway station is effectively unsettling and graphic. Hjortsberg knows his hard-boiled lingo and the New York of the time and makes it all believable. This is no humorous pastiche or parody; it's a stunning crime novel bled through with visceral horrors of the most personal and, in the end, damning kind.