Stubborn Angels

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (1978): Top-notch melding of the horror and hard-boiled detective genres by Hjortsberg, whose bibliography seems to contain more unproduced screenplays than anything else. He did adapt this novel into the 1987 movie Angel Heart (a.k.a. the movie with controversial nude sex scenes featuring The Cosby Show‘s Lisa Bonet playing a voodoo priestess), though there are significant differences between the two works. In terms of location, the novel stays pretty much in New York while the movie headed to New Orleans, I’d assume to make the voodoo action more… believeable?

Hjortsberg nails the cynical prose-poetry of the classic hard-boiled detective novel, with P.I. Harry Angel handling the world-weary, occasionally cruel but mostly well-meaning first-person narration. Angel repeatedly comes off as the world’s oddest New York City tour guide as we move in and around the New York of the late 1950’s.

A mysterious client hires Angel to track down a popular singer in the Frank Sinatra mode who was supposed to be in an upstate mental asylum after injuries sustained during World War Two left him mentally and physically disabled. The only problem is, the singer — stage name Johnny Favorite — isn’t at the asylum, and hasn’t been for years. And the trail is cold. But as Angel pursues Favorite, everything starts to heat up, and people start dying in increasingly horrible ways.

Variations are worked on the usual suspects and usual characters of hardboiled detective fiction and film, from shadowy businessmen through shady lawyers to jilted heiresses. As Angel’s case proceeds, odder characters arise, and previously introduced characters get odder. There will be voodoo. There will be Satanism. There will be horoscopes and morphine addicts and one weird trip to the theatre.

Hjortsberg’s period and genre-specific style works wonderfully throughout Falling Angel, falling always just on the serious side of near-parody. Angel’s a tough customer with no friends and his own troubled past, but like all great hardboiled detectives, his essential quality is absolute stubbornness. He’ll solve the case regardless of the cost. And what a cost! Highly recommended.

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