"Falling Angel" Book Review
Written by Steve Pattee
Published by Open Road Media
Written by William Hjortsberg
1978, 302 pages, Fiction
Released on March 13th, 2012
I've mentioned before that when it comes to reading, horror isn't always my go-to genre. When I hunker down with a book, I usually pick a thriller or hardboiled crime novel before I reach for the living dead. That obviously doesn't mean I dislike reading horror, laws no. I just go through so much of it for the site, I need to take the occasional break. But sometimes a book comes along that merges horror and hardboiled so effortlessly, I get a bit giddy because I get two of my favorite genres in one book. That doesn't happen often, but when it does it's pretty awesome. William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel is one of these novels.
Set in New York in 1959, Falling Angel follows private dick Harry Angel in his mission to track down the once popular jazz singer Johnny Favorite. Angel's client, the mysterious Louis Cyphre, wants the musical sensation found due to a breach of contract. Favorite is supposed to be in a sanitarium due to injuries he received in World War II, but when Cyphre tried to see him there he was turned away, and that's when he hires on Angel for assistance. Needless to say, the hospital is Angel's first stop, and after he finds Favorite hasn't been a patient in years and the doctor he questions is brutally murdered before much information can be gleaned, Angel is sucked into a seedy world of drugs, death and voodoo.
Falling Angel nails about everything right to be a fantastic pulp fiction novel. In addition to having a great name, Harry Angel is borderline unlikeable. Badass for sure, but he crosses over the line many times when trying to extract information in his quest to find Johnny Favorite. He's quick to throw punches or use his gun as a threat, even when it's not necessarily called for. However, Hjortsberg expertly keeps Angel just grounded enough so you still somewhat like him. Even though his relationship with Epiphany Proudfoot, a woman inexplicably tied to Johnny Favorite, is kind of scummy because of their vast age difference, he does have genuine feelings for her. It's an odd feeling to root for the character, but when Angel gets his inevitable comeuppance, you are fine with that too.
The enigmatic Louis Cyphre is one of those great characters that you always end up wanting more of, but again Hjortsberg shows his skill here by giving you what you need. Ironically, while Cyphre just oozes evil, you still like him more than Angel. It's obvious from the start that Cyphre has an ulterior motive to wanting Favorite found than just an old contract problem, and you know he's going to get his way no matter what because he has the power to do so.
The book has great characters throughout. In addition to those mentioned, there's an old bandmate of Favorite's that Angel tracks down and he's one tough bastard. There's also Margaret Krusemark, an astrologist who has her own ties with the missing singer. Pretty much everyone Angle runs into during the course of his investigation are memorable in their own way.
The film Angel Heart was based on this book, and while it's a good movie in its own right, the book is far superior. While both are a bit heavy handed in the overall arc of who Louis Cypher actually is (something I won't touch on because if you haven't read or seen the film, I'll let you figure it out on your own if you haven't already just by his name), the movie is more so. Plus, even though you couldn't ask for better casting in a young Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel, Robert De Nerio as Cypher and Lisa Bonet as the love interest Ephiphany Proudfoot, the film version portrays Angel as rather meek and makes him far more likable than he should be. Don't get me wrong, it's a damn good movie, but there's a reason why Angel needs to be a bit douchey.
Falling Angel is a great marriage of horror and hardboiled, with a superb cast of characters that are both memorable and realistic. It has a quick pace and Hjortsberg keeps the topic grounded in a believable reality (all things considered). It's dark throughout, with an ending that's even darker. If you like your mysteries in a seedy environment and dipped in horror, you'll do well to pick this one up.