Sunday, June 10, 2012

Review and Giveaway: Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (4/5)

The moment I heard about Falling Angel, I knew I had to read it—kind of like the moment I first saw my wife.  Except I didn’t want to read her.  I wanted to do something else with her.  Use your imagination.  Anyway—Falling Angel.  It’s a horror tale told through the lens of a hardboiled mystery—the kind of thing that would be 100% my bag.  But laying hands on the book proved to be a lot harder than laying hands on wifey-dearest (we were engaged after two weeks.  When you know, you know, right?).  It was originally published in 1978 and was at that time out of print.  The local bookshops hadn’t heard of it.  Amazon and Barnes & Noble were sold out.  I even made a couple of pilgrimages to the greatest used bookstore in the world, and no dice.

So imagine my surprise when, perusing Netgalley a couple months ago, the holy grail of all my literary wants suddenly dropped into my lap.  Yep, that’s right, Falling Angel in the flesh.  The folks who made it all happen are an e-publishing firm called Open Road Media.  And not only did they resurrect a fine piece of literary gold, but they’re also providing an electronic copy of the book to one lucky reader of this blog.  The book will come in the form of an eGalley from NetGalley, so you’ll need a NetGalley account in order to download your copy.  But hey, signing up is free, so no biggie, right?  See the rafflecopter widget at the bottom of this page to enter the drawing. 

But before we get to all of that, we’ve got a review to do.

Falling Angel is the story of Harry Angel, a private investigator in the Big Apple during the 1950s.  Imagine your quintessential private eye—hardnosed, problems with authority, a little bit slovenly.  That’s Harry Angel.  He fought during WWII in North Africa and has the fake nose and plastic surgery scars to prove.  He’s hired by a wealthy businessman named Louis Cypher to track down a once-famous crooner known as Johnny Favorite.  Cypher and Favorite had some business deal back when the singer was rich and famous (handsome, wholesome, the kind of boy you could take home to mom), but he got shipped off to war and came back a vegetable.  Since that time he’s been residing in a mental hospital upstate.  But when Angel gets to the hospital, Johnny Favorite is nowhere to be found.  He puts the screws to the good doctor at the hospital and finds out that Johnny had recovered, but was afflicted with near total amnesia.  Back in the forties a couple friends of Johnny’s paid the doctor to keep quiet about it and keep Johnny on the hospital rolls so no one would be the wiser.  A few hours after Angel gets his answers, however, the doc winds up dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, and Angel high-tails it back to NYC.

He starts investigating Johnny Favorite’s music associates, trying to find these elusive “friends” that took him away from the hospital.  In the process he finds out more about Johnny and realizes that he most definitely wasn’t the type “type of boy you could take home to mom.”  An orphan, he came from humble beginnings only to suddenly be catapulted to fame and stardom.  The origins of his success?  None can (or is willing to) say, but those in the know describe him as “a man of power” interested in mysticism, astrology, and the black arts.  He dabbled in voodoo, carted around a human skull in his suitcase, and even participated in ceremonies dedicated to the dark lord himself.  As Angel continues his investigation, the body count climbs.  One of Johnny’s old band mates is murdered in a staged voodoo ceremony.  His ex-fiance has her heart torn out like an Aztec sacrifice.  And soon it becomes apparent that Cypher, the client, isn’t exactly what he claims to be.  The horror drives Johnny Favorite’s estranged teenage daughter (and voodoo princess) into Angel’s arms.  And then shit get’s really weird.

William Hjortsberg (photo ©1995 Michael Katakis)
Falling Angel is a masterful blend of two of my favorite genres.  Using the tried and true tropes of both hardboiled mysteries and horror fiction, Hjortsberg creates a genre mashup with surprising originality.  And the way it transitions from a-typical P.I. mystery to gut-wrenching horror is performed so deftly that it’s hard to exactly pinpoint the moment the narrative moves from one to the other.  You can feel the mounting dread in your bones as Angel slowly uncovers one piece of the puzzle after another, and the twist at the end will leave you breathless.  Even I was left disturbed by it all, and I had predicted the ending about halfway through the book—which brings me to my next point.

If there was one thing negative that I can say about the novel, it would have to be that Hjortsberg telegraphs the ending somewhat.  It could just be me (I am, after all, exceedingly smart and want everyone else to know it), but I doubt it.  I mean, the client’s name is Louis Cypher.  That’s such a huge clue I don’t see how anyone could miss it, and it’s a little too hokey and vaudeville for my tastes.  But then again, maybe that was the point.  At any rate, it didn’t ruin the read for me.  The metaphors used were also almost exclusively similes (you know, those containing “like” or “as”), which isn’t itself a bad thing, but I found myself yearning for a little more structural variation after a while.  I know Hjortsberg was just trying to replicate the a-typical “P.I. talk,” so it’s all good.

If you like either horror or hardboiled mysteries, Falling Angel will probably float your boat.  I love both genres, so for me it’s like Hjortsberg combined pizza and ice cream into miracle confectionary on the level of nectar and ambrosia.  Literarily speaking, of course.  I give it four stars.

Now about this giveaway.  Like I said above, you’ll need to have a Negtalley account in order to get in on the fun, but it’s free and you can do sign up by following the handy-dandy link.  Then enter for the drawing by using the rafflecopter widget below.  There’s one “freebie” entry you can take advantage of just for being a person of exceedingly good taste (I mean, you’re reading my blog, right?).  You can also earn more entries by doing a little something extra, like following the blog or tweeting about it or what have you.  If you’re already doing that little extra something, then you can count that entry like another freebie and sign up without getting your hands dirty—or dirtier.  You know what I mean.  Let me know if you have any questions or problems with the widget, and good luck!


  1. Well you had to know I was entering. It sounds so great but then you're very good at making a book sound good so here I am. Nectar and ambrosia is hard to say no to and two weeks to engagement wow she must be some gal.

    1. I would have been offended if tou didn't enter. :)

      And yes, she's quite a woman--a handful of trouble at times, but I wouldn't have it any other way. When we got engaged we were both 21 years old (which might have something to do with why we jumped in head first). September will be seven years since our first date. It's hard to believe so much time has passed already. I guess that means we've been having us some fun, huh?.

    2. A handful of trouble is just enough to keep a guy on his toes so perfect.

  2. Didn't DeNiro play "Louis Cypher" in a movie called Angel Heart?
    Related to the book by any chance?

  3. Yep, Angel Heart was the movie adaptation. I hear it was a pretty faithful adaptation, too.

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