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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Falling Angel

William Hjortsberg

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To purchase Falling Angel

Title: Falling Angel
Author: William Hjortsberg
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978
Length: 243 pages
Availability: Falling Angel - US
Falling Angel - UK
Falling Angel - Canada
Le Sabbat dans Central Park - France
Angel Heart - Deutschland
Angel Heart - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)
DVD: Angel Heart - US
Angel Heart - UK
  • Falling Angel was made into a film in 1987, Angel Heart, directed by Alan Parker and starring Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, and Lisa Bonet

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Our Assessment:

B+ : clever, and neatly executed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times A 10/11/1978 C.Lehmann-Haupt

  From the Reviews:
  • "You can never tell what William Hjortsberg will pull next, except that it's bound to be a parody of past fictional forms and good fun. (...) It's enough to say that by mixing the two forms, as if her were combining hydrogen and oxygen, and igniting them with the spark of his talent, he has produced an extremely nasty explosion." - Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Falling Angel is narrated by New York private eye Harry Angel, and certainly has the feel of a hard-boiled PI novel, with its protagonist the kind of guy who buys a pint of bourbon for the drive up to Poughkeepsie, polishing half of it off on the way up (behind the wheel) and saving the rest for the ride back. But from the outset, there are clues that this isn't quite your ordinary pulp noir -- as black as it does turn out to be -- with the novel opening on a Friday the thirteenth (noted in the opening sentence) and Angel meeting his new client at 666 Fifth Avenue (the address the opening words of the second chapter). Oh, yes, there's also the client's name: Louis Cyphre -- only so much of a cipher ......
       Cyphre is interested in a once phenomenally successful singer named Johnny Favorite. Cyphre helped him launch his career -- and:

In recognition of my assistance, which was considerable, we had a contract. Certain collateral was involved. This was to be forfeited in the event of his death. I'm sorry that I can't be more explicit, but the terms of our agreement specified that the details remain confidential.
       Drafted during the Second World War, Johnny was badly injured and came home in 1943 basically as a zombie; he's apparently been in a care-facility since then. (The action takes place in 1959.) Cyphre wants Angel to find out if Johnny is still alive -- and, if he is, his whereabouts.
       Eager beaver Angel heads straight for the hospital where Johnny supposedly has been all these years, but is told he was transferred elsewhere way back in 1945. Angel quickly confirms that story isn't true -- but Johnny's actual fate remains a mystery. More unsettlingly, pretty much everyone Angel finds with some connection to Johnny winds up dead before Angel can get much information out of them.
       Back in the day, Johnny was also engaged, to the daughter of Ethan Krusemark, a "bigshot ship-owner". The girl was into tarot cards and black magic when she was in college -- the time when she met Johnny -- and was even known as the 'Witch of Wellesley', but seems to have more or less disappeared from sight. Johnny does find her, and there's an amusing bit of cat-and-mouse playing between them for a while; like everybody else, she seems to be harboring secrets about Johnny, and Angel can only slowly piece together what they might be.
       Then there's the voodoo connection, with Johnny having also been involved with an Evangeline Proudfoot, a "beautiful, strong West Indian woman", ten or fifteen years Johnny's senior. Evangeline is dead, but her seventeen-year-old daughter, Epiphany, carries on the tradition -- and turns to Angel when she starts worrying about her own safety, the two of them getting involved.
       Johnny remains a mystery man, with few people having good memories of him. He was very successful, making it big and making a lot of money. And among the second-hand reports Angel gets is:
     "Did she ever say anything about him that you can remember ?"
     "What ?"
     "She said he had power."
       There certainly seem some strange forces in play around the whole case -- not least with so many of the people involved suffering violent deaths. The police can't help but notice that Angel has a connection with some of these people, which further complicates the situation. And he begins to wonder about the man behind the whole case, Cyphre; he, like several of the characters, seems to be playing with different identities. (So also Angel repeatedly presents himself as someone he is not to elicit information, while Johnny's one-time fiancée first presents herself to Angel as her twin.)
       It's a dark whirlpool Angel finds himself tossed and turned in. As he sums up:
     A carnival of death. Step right up and see the voodoo death ceremony ! Hurry, hurry, hurry; don't miss the Aztec sacrifice ! First time ever ! The case was a sideshow. Witches and fortune-teller; a client who dressed in blackface like the Sheik of Araby. I was the rube on this macabre midway, dazzled by the lights and sleight of hand. The shadow-play events screened manipulations I could barely discern.
       Angel investigates like a good-ol', hard-drinking PI, with Hjortsberg presenting him as a clever pro. He knows how to get the job done -- except that this is no ordinary job. And, of course, his fundamental mistake is not to realize why he was chosen for the job in the first place .....
       Hjortsberg flashes a lot of clues about what is going on from the get-go -- from that opening Friday the thirteenth -- but this is also a novel of sideshow tricks and he keeps the reader wrong-footed with all manner of distractions. Like Angel, you don't see it all coming until, finally, it's all right there and so obvious, in the novel's tidy, brutal sledgehammer blow of a resolution.
       Along the way and incidentally, Falling Angel also neatly captures late-1950s New York City -- not least its music scene --, repeatedly alluding also to events of the day to place it more firmly in that time.
       The action itself is, in part, savage -- lots of deaths, and some of them quite shocking --, and Angel witnesses some truly stomach-churning scenes.
       In outline, and in much of how Hjortsberg unfolds his story, Falling Angel is brilliant. It's a very clever idea, and looking back, once it's all played out, on just what Hjortsberg does it really is impressively planned out. There's also Hjortsberg's writing, which is especially strong when Angel is in PI-mode and on the job; Hjortsberg has the tone of the genre just right, and there are some very fine turns of phrase.
       Oddly, then, it doesn't quite all gel. In part, it's simply too clearly mapped out -- the blueprint so sharp and perfect that the actual structure built on that feels too obviously constructed. The messiness of the many added elements, beginning or ending with voodoo and carnival acts, also makes for layers that damp the novel down some; the excess, in every respect, is a bit much (even as, of course, this is a novel about ultimate excesses).
       It's a neat piece of work, but not entirely satisfying.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 March 2023

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Falling Angel: Reviews: Angel Heart: William Hjortsberg: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author William Hjortsberg lived 1941 to 2017.

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© 2023 the complete review

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