Book review: Falling Angel

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

You know, there’s a lot to be said for pulps. Often, you’ll find wisdom or truth amongst the piles of bodies. Sometimes there’s moments of grace. Usually, there’s sex and violence. As far as brain-off reads go, pulps are a good way to defrag the mind after one too many volumes of Proust.

(If you’ve never tried it, you need to. Disregarding this type of lit is a loss, because everyone needs some dumb fun once in a while.)

Falling Angel is unashamedly a pulp work. The opening line is something which indicates to the reader that Hjortsberg is starting as he means to go on:

IT WAS FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH and yesterday’s snowstorm lingered in the streets like a leftover curse.

The novel tells the story of a NYC private dick, Harry Angel. He’s a scotch-drinking, hard-talking ex-serviceman who lies like a rug in the course of his job.

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

In this case, his job is the pursuit of a missing big-band singer, Johnny Favorite. Angel’s been hired by the mysterious Louis Cyphre, a creepy man of means with a couple of lickspittle lawyers up his sleeve. The path the investigation takes leads the gumshoe to a variety of the lower depths of New York, to the freaks of Coney Island and to some distinctly questionably child-care practices.

666 FIFTH AVENUE WAS an unhappy marriage of the International Style and our own homegrown tailfin technology. It had gone up two years before between 52nd and 53rd streets: a million square feet of office space sheathed in embossed aluminum panels. It looked like a forty-story cheese grater. There was a waterfall in the lobby, but that didn’t seem to help.

There’s plenty of dealing with crooked cops and captains of industry to be found within, and though the foreshadowing is troweled on, there’s still some surprises to be found within. Where Hjortsberg’s novel differs from the Sam Spade style of pulp is the introduction of black magic and voodoo, their tendrils reaching deep into Manhattan’s soil.

I mean LOOK AT THE CAST.

There’s surely no way that anyone reading this book is unaware of Angel Heart, the film adaptation of the story. It’s through the film that I came to know of this book, and so I originally formed my opinion of what the “correct” version of this story was – I viewed Angel as Mickey Rourke, and was very surprised upon reading to find that New Orleans doesn’t even appear in the original work.

I think enough time had passed since I’d last seen the movie (and read the book) that I could, on this reread, see the novel for what it was, rather than as a pale shadow of the film. While I initially lamented the lack of Louisiana in the text, I now feel it makes perfect sense. For the film, it’s a no-brainer – but for the novel, the effect of devilish doings seems much more shocking when presented in the beating heart of the Objectivist Big Apple.

Detectives are like cab drivers; they pick up the geography on the job.

Setting a story of ancient evil in the most modern metropolis makes for some tasty juxtaposition, and I enjoyed seeing where the story would go, even if its destination is pretty visible from the outset. While the ending always seems to come around a bit more quickly than expected, it’s a good trip, full of creeping horror leavened with smart-arse dialogue.

I’ve started to run only partial versions of my reviews on Goodreads. I’ve been a bit weirded out by the tenor of that site, and so I’m pretty keen to keep my stuff over this side of things. My profile is still there, but I’ll pretty much be using it solely for tracking and teasing full reviews. Why? Read this and see for yourself.

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