Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (1978): Damned Damned Damned

Where do you search for a guy who was never there to begin with?

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.

But I don't think it was until 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...

Inside 1979 UK paperback

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.

1986 Warner Books

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.


  1. Basis for the movie "Angel Heart", if I'm not mistaken, starring Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro (as Cypher). A lot of that movie lost me, but the ending was creepy at least. Never read the book, though.

  2. Like most, I was made aware of this book through "Angel Heart." The trailer captured my imagination the instant I saw it. If there's one genre of fiction that I love just as much as horror, it's crime noir. The seediness and the grit of it just does wonders for me. This book seems like a natural call for me. Supernatural horror set amongst the rough and tough streets of NY with a hardboiled dick as our guide into madness? Nuff said. I'll have to review it one day myself.

  3. I haven't seen the movie in many, many years so I didn't want to get into a compare-and-contrast thing, but I will say New Orleans figures not at all in the novel. I love crime noir too so FALLING ANGEL is a special treat. Hjortsberg only wrote one or two novels after that; NEVERMORE I believe is about Poe. They may be out of print but they're easily obtained.

  4. I've been wanting to read this book ever since I've discovered the movie. As you read on my blog it's definitely one of my absolute favorite horror films. I've heard from many, though, it doesn't compare to the book.

    BTW, Will, reading through this blog I've really made me want to seek out my horror books and start reviewing them. Just gonna take me a while, though. I haven't been watching or reading as much as I'd like to lately, a lot of my reviews recently are from months back of writing them but not yet posting them, heh.

  5. Recently found a hardcover at a yard sale. I need to reread this one.

  6. I finally read this last year and it was really as good as its reputation. Afterward I saw the movie again - which I'd never really liked much before - and found out it aged really well and I actually enjoyed it. Love when that happens!

  7. Plus, Hjortsberg wrote the script for "Legend".

    Glad I still have a copy of this book and never lent it out.

  8. Watched ANGEL HEART on Netflix Instant recently, hadn't seen it since like 1990... and it's amazing. There is one terribly cheesy shot however but overall it is so worth rewatching. Young rumpled Rourke is astounding!

  9. Sad news, Jay, but thanks for sharing.

  10. I don't understand how none of the people he met didn't recognise him. Can someone help me out here.