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Book Review – ‘Falling Angel’ by William Hjortsberg

January 20, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

About the Book:

Filmed as Angel Heart, by Alan Parker, a crime novel in which a New York detective becomes embroiled in a nightmare of voodoo and black magic when a missing-persons case he accepts develops into a mysterious murder investigation.

I found this old novel ‘Falling Angel‘ by William Hjortsberg (published waaay back in 1978) in a second-hand bookstore, and thought I’d take a chance on it. I’d heard of the 1987 film ‘Angel Heart‘ starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro which was based on this novel (I never saw the movie, but one of my buds is a Robert De Niro stan who always insisted that De Niro was one of the best Lucifers in the business. Oops – well, that’s not really a spoiler, is it?)

So, anyway, the novel, set in 1950s New York, is kind of a mash-up – it starts off as a mystery novel, with small time private detective Harry Angel being hired for what appears to be a straight-forward missing person’s case. Businessman Louis Cypher hires Harry Angel to track down a famous-before-World-War-2 crooner called Johnny Favorite. Before Harry Angel can say boo! – people related to the case start dying in horrible voodoo- & black-magic related ways – and the book morphs into a supernatural horror novel, and Harry Angel discovers ‘horrifying’ truths about the case (and himself). Come on, I’m not always the brightest person on the planet, but it’s pretty obvious from the start that ‘Louis Cypher’ is a play on ‘Lucifer’, right? If not, my apologies for the spoiler!

I have a feeling that back in 1978 when this book was published, the subject matter really was shocking & scary. Voodoo, black magic, devil-worship & human sacrifice (even unwitting incest) is shown unflinchingly in the novel, and I can see why the likes of Stephen King praised it for being unlike anything he had read before. Unfortunately, I grew up watching CSI and Law & Order, and not a lot of story-lines are left that can ‘shock’ me anymore.

I can, however, appreciate good old-fashioned writing – and I absolutely bow before the author for the amazing portrayal of 1950s New York that he gives us. It’s like a trip back in time, and we get to hang-out with Harry Angel from the most elegant locales of Manhattan in the mid-50s to the seediest locations, including a trip to a smoky jazz bar, Coney Island (which was already a wreck back then) and a trek through the bowels of the subway system. I mean, I’m fascinated with the TV series ‘Mad Men’ so I really appreciated the time capsule element to the book. The writing is very crisp, with Mr Hjortsberg using as little words as possible to move the story along. Each chapter can be read really fast, with the writing pretty consistently good (for the genre) – it does hit a snag when Harry Angel shacks up with a 17-year-old temptation called Epiphany. Let’s just say that I had a hard time believing the ‘love’ schtick, and things get kinda sick when you (and Harry) realize exactly who Epiphany is in the end.

Also, I’ve complained recently on how some authors are wont these days to practically telegraphing what’s coming up. William Hjortsberg is very good at giving hints or foreboding of things to come, without actually giving things away. I really enjoyed the imaginative ‘twist’ at the end for this novel – I kinda had a foreboding since Mr Hjortsberg did drop hints – but it was still a damned good ‘gotcha!’ moment for me when Harry Angel made his discovery (which I won’t spoil, ok).

If you want to check ‘Falling Angel‘ out, it’s unfortunately out of print, but your library may have a copy? Amazon does have hardcover, mass market paperback and paperback editions available via third-party if you want to check it out.

For a second opinion – here’s some reviews of Falling Angel by other bloggers:

  • Books and Writers – “I loved the novel just as much as I loved the movie”
  • One Writer’s Blotter – “It’s entirely worth the read.”
  • Hellnotes – “If you haven’t read this novel or seen the film, then you owe it to yourself to do so.”

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