FALLING ANGEL by William Hjortsberg (1978, Harcourt)
#5 Falling Angel. This Chandleresque private eye novel may well be the finest American horror novel of this century.
– Karl Edward Wagner, 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels (Twilight Zone magazine 1983)
I first read Falling Angel in 1983. Right after the KEW list was published in the old Twilight Zone magazine. Naturally, I went to the public library in search of the books on the list. Wagner being the obscure literature fan, I didn’t find too much. The exception was Falling Angel, which I took home and read over a matter of days.
In preparation for this review, I read the book again. I don’t usually re-read books as there’s too much out there I haven’t read. But I felt the passage of 30 years would dull my memory to the point of writing a bad review. I gritted my teeth and went back to the book.
Astonishingly, I enjoyed the book more this time than on the first read. Hjortsberg, on his website, talks about why he set the novel in 1959: these were the most vivid years he could remember in his hometown of Manhattan, New York City. Manhattan in the 50’s comes alive in these pages. Coney Island, Harlem all these places were written through the eyes of someone was there. It makes for a very vivid background.
Harry Angel, private investigator, is working the gumshoe trade in Manhattan, 1959. One day he’s contacted by a powerful lawyer on behalf of a mysterious client. The client, an eloquent gentleman named Louis Cyphre (pay attention to the name), wants Angel to find a missing crooner from the 1930’s: Johnny Fortune. It seems Mr. Cyphre sponsored Fortune’s musical career before WWII until the singer was wounded in the war. He’s been convalescing in a private sanitarium since the incident, barely conscious. Cyphre has discovered Fortune is missing from the place and wants him located.
In true hardboiled PI fiction, Harry Angel strolls down the mean streets of Manhattan looking for the missing Fortune. He runs into many people who knew Fortune, but few who remember anything about him. This was before the Net and massive data information on every particular subject. Angel is forced to visit reporters, libraries and consult things known as phone books. It was a different time.
The closer he gets to finding Fortune, the more the dead bodies start accumulating First, it’s a doctor at the sanitarium, then more and more. Each know a bit about why Fortune disappeared, but they won’t talk. And each have an upside down star or inverted pentagram on their person. Soon, Angel begins seeing Mr. Cyphre in his dreams.
The book is full of bizarre occult references to New York City. There’s a voodoo ceremony in Central Park. One of the witnesses he consults is a socialite astrologer. And there is the required black mass. I’m not sure what Hjortrsberg was trying to say about the forces of darkness, given the grim ending. My guess is a warning to stay away from things far more powerful and sinister than you can imagine.
Of course I saw the 1987 movie version, Angel Heart, when it hit the screen. Having read the book before and after the movie was released, I can say that it is a good adaptation. Mickey Rourke made a decent Harry Angel, but the personality of Angel in the book is too Ross MacDonald to get a visual. On the second read, I kept seeing Lisa Bonet as Epiphany Proudfoot, Angel’s love interest. I should mention the entire book takes place in Manhattan, unlike the movie which has a side trip to New Orleans.
The book isn’t difficult to find and has been reprinted many times. It’s easily the best merger of PI fiction and supernatural literature.