Friday, January 21, 2011

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

Title: Falling Angel
Author: William Hjortsberg
Publisher: Harcourt (1978)

After a brief respite for the holidays, Michael (aka The Bomb) and I are back for another joint post wherein I will review the novel and Michael will review the movie it inspired.

You can get to Michael's film review of Angel Heart by clicking here.

Two comments to kick us off:
1. Thanks to Michael for suggesting this title as I'd never heard of it but loved it, and for loaning the book to me as I couldn't find a copy myself.

2. I wonder if the Essex County Council misses their book. Perhaps Michael had trouble finding a copy, as well. ;)

In Falling Angel New York private eye, Harry Angel, is hired to determine whether or not Johnny Favorite is dead or still hospitalized in a coma. Favorite, once a famous singer, was injured in WWII and a man to whom he has a debt, Louis Cyphre, has recently been given the runaround from hospital personnel. What appears to be a straightforward case takes a turn for the worse when Angel's witnesses turn up dead.

I quite liked the writing style and had good intentions of sharing several quotes. Unfortunately I wasn't reading this with pen and paper nearby and I'm terrible at sifting for the lines I liked later. Instead I'll give you the quote the author chose to share at the beginning:

Alas, how terrible is wisdom when
it brings no profit to the man that's wise!
---Sophocles, Oedipus the King

On top of the enjoyable writing style, I absolutely dug the dialogue. I really hope people spoke this way in the fifties! The dialogue was such a trip and I really enjoyed the way it supported the atmosphere. Problem was, I couldn't figure if it was authentic or just reminded me of movies set in the same time period. If anyone out there can set me straight on this I'd love to know.

The tone of the book was pitch-perfect (hehe, see what I did there?) and, better yet, you don't quite realize it until the book is over. Forgive me for gushing, but this book has several things going for it that are right up my alley: writing that requires the reader to participate in the story, shifting appearances, and parts that made the whole - in other words, clarity isn't found until the last page. The attitude of the protag was also tons of fun. As you navigate the story, at times heartening and at times horrific, Angel is the perfect companion. I weary of crime fiction in the first person but was glad to have it here.

The book surprised me in its gruesome violence. The surprise was because it was unexpected (didn't even notice the book is horror/crime fiction) but you'll notice my use of 'gruesome' rather than 'gratuitous.' It took me til the end but I did - and do - think the violence was pertinent to the story, or at least my interpretation of it. Still, one scene in particular had me cringing. Some mental images can never be undone. Oi! You have been warned.

For all my enjoyment of the style I found the book a bit dated. --Aside: I find crime fiction in general to be pretty in its time even if set in an alternate decade - do others feel that crime fiction is dated when read well past its publication?-- Speaking of dated, Angel is in his late 30s and the love interest is in her late teens. An age disparity this great rarely works for me in novels set after WWI. And for most of the book it was driving me a little nutty. But with the completion of the book I realized it followed the tone and intent of the story.

Angel's discovery of Favorite's life is really well done. Tracing his past back through his friends was a great way for the story to reveal itself through layers. As I said, I'm a big fan of shifting perspectives so going between folks with vastly different opinions of and experiences with Favorite was much to my taste. (I like the missing persons searches that occur via friends rather than events because then you can have the shifting perspectives business.)

This story is like a perfectly served meal; the next course is ready right when you finish with the current and it's always the right temperature. This, coupled with the tone of the book, bump Falling Angel up into more than just a horror or crime story. Even when you can't explain the melancholic, bittersweet turn to Angel's narration you are immediately sucked in to his emotional state while waiting anxiously for the next clue to Favorite's whereabouts.

I'm just going to make one small comment that will ruin part of the book if you're a first time reader. Highlight if interested: One of the stupid blurbs had me on the lookout for a surprise and so I predicted the identity twist well before the halfway mark. Grrr! Grrr! Why do blurbers and reviewers do this???? If you enjoyed the surprise then I will, too - if you just give me the chance. I've said before I'm a gullible reader who is very easily tricked but not if there's a big sign telling me to look out for a surprise. That being said, I still loved the ending. I didn't predict the 'deal with the devil' bit and it totally rocked my world to spiral into the horror that became Angel's reality.

I won't quote it here but the second paragraph on p. 8 has got to be one of the best bits in the book. If you read the book (and I encourage you to do just that) you'll want to give that part a second glance once you've finished.

Lastly, I hated the movie adaptation. It's not often that I feel all that strongly about movie adaptations but in this case I think they lost what was best in the book, ruined the rest, and added shit to fill the holes. But, I'll leave more details re this for my comments at the movie review. I'm looking forward to Michael's take on the movie - he always gets me thinking and often changes my mind on certain points - and some interesting discussion.

And in case you haven't already been, here's the link again for the movie review!

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Coming up next:
Devil in a Blue Dress

Links to previous joint posts:
The Lathe of Heaven
The Princess Bride
A Scanner Darkly
The Children of Men
The Minority Report


  1. Excellent book review, Rachel! You did Hjortsberg's novel justice with your examination. In response to your initial comments:
    1) I'm so happy you enjoyed it
    2) the Devil made me do it ;-). Seriously, I'd like to replace the UK used copy I bought for the classic hardcover, but they're hard to find at a reasonable price.

    First, let me say I'm not surprised you were keen on the book but not the film. I don't know if you viewed the movie to start with or not. I originally saw the theatrical cut of Angel Heart in '87 and didn't like it. But it haunted me, and drove me to find the book -- which I loved. And in the just the same way as you describe here. Later, when the more explicit cut of Angel Heart was released I rented it (this time armed with WH's novel in my head). That's when Alan Parker's adaptation clicked for me.

    "This story is like a perfectly served meal; the next course is ready right when you finish with the current and it's always the right temperature.:

    A wonderful way to describe it! And Hjortsberg's dialogue really is something, huh? His plotting, and superb mix of genres, really had me when I first read the novel (and this during a time when I was more in to horror than crime fiction). All in all, this really is a book for either fans of crime or noir, horror, or the hybrid of both. Well done, Rachel.

  2. Interesting that the book helped with your enjoyment of the movie. I didn't watch the movie until after reading the book and I wonder if perhaps I would have liked the movie more if I'd not read the novel. I doubt it, but the possibility is there. In addition to not liking the movie on its own, I didn't like the adaptation of the story.

    I completely agree about the genre mixing. It's done so well and so many different types of readers will come away satisfied.

    Thanks for the kind words on the review. I actually feel it's one of my weaker ones. I go back and forth regarding doing spoiler reviews. The more I like a book the more I want to do a spoiler review because there's so much I want to talk about but then the more I don't want to spoil anything as I want every first time reader to have as much fun as I did. However, when we do these comparisons I think it's more fun to go in-depth and just have spoilers. Maybe next time... It's hard to organize my thoughts when so much of what I want to talk about I'm trying not to talk about. :)

  3. I think it was a great review. And isn't it funny we each chose the Sophocles quote for our respective examinations (yours the real one from the book, and mine for the Devil's take on it). Thanks, Rachel.

  4. Sounds great. I'm there -- and thanks. I need a new read now that I've finished my roman doctor series.

  5. Kate - I looked for that series but, alas, no longer free. I'm going to try to pick it up from the lib. as it sounded like one that I'd like.

    btw, how do you come across Kindle deals? I was trying to navigate Amazon's promotion website but it's not laid out well. Do you have a suggestion for free eBook news/promotions?

  6. Really enjoyed your review, thanks. It's a book that I remember liking a good deal though and having the other main twist spoiled is a real shame - mid you, I knew the ending as I'd already seen the movie, (which, unlike you I liked quite a bit too)

  7. Hi Sergio, Thanks so much for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the review. It was definitely a bummer for me to have that spoiler but, as I'm sure you know since you'd already seen the movie, it's still a very enjoyable read! Did you check out Michael's film review? Cheers!