In The Spotlight: William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Many crime novels can’t be easily classified into one or another category. On the one hand, that makes them a bit more difficult to discuss. But on the other hand, a novel that combines elements of more than one sub-genre can make for a different sort of reading experience. And that can draw the reader in. Certainly, this sort of blend can make for an unusual story. To show you what I mean, let’s turn today’s spotlight on William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel. The inspiration for Alan Parker’s film Angel Heart, this novel is arguably a blend of crime fiction (specifically, the PI novel) and horror.

The novel takes place in 1959 New York City, where Harry Angel is a low-rent private investigator. One day, he gets a call from the upmarket law offices of McIntosh, Winesap and Spy. It seems that one of the firm’s clients, Louis Cyphre, wants Angel to find a man named Jonathan Liebling. Better known as Johnny Favorite, he was a talented jazz musician. Cyphre claims that he helped Liebling/Favorite at the start of his career, in return for which Favorite promised ‘certain collateral,’ about which Cyphre isn’t specific. Then, Favorite was drafted into service in World War II. When he returned, he was badly physically and emotionally damaged, and ended up having to be placed in a special hospital. Then, he disappeared from the hospital.

Now, Cyphre wants Angel to find Johnny Favorite. Angel agrees, and begins to look into the matter. But he soon finds that this is no normal missing person case. First, he tries to speak to the doctor at the hospital where Favorite was a patient. On the night of that conversation, the doctor commits suicide (or does he?). Angel contacts other witnesses, too, who die soon afterwards.

It’s now clear that Angel is involved in much more than a simple case of a missing patient who perhaps wandered off. At every turn, it seems, there are black masses, dangerous magic, voodoo/Obeah, and other supernatural elements. And, as Angel pursues the case, he feels the influence of these forces. He has bizarre nightmares, and he sees that he’s in increasing danger, and is caught in a web he may not be able to escape.

As I mentioned, this novel is really a blend of more than one sub-genre. On one level, it’s a noir PI novel. Angel is a two-bit detective who doesn’t count the wealthy and well-placed among his usual clients. The novel takes place in 1959, so there’s some use of the sort of ‘American PI novel’ language you might expect (e.g. shamus, jake, and so on). Like other noir PI novels, this one is violent, at times, brutal. Readers who prefer low levels of violence and gore will notice this. And Angel is no less guilty of some of that violence than any of the other characters. I don’t usually like to draw comparisons among novels, as each one is so different. But in this case, you might draw a sort of parallel between this novel’s PI style, and the PI style of, perhaps, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.

Because it’s a PI novel, Angel has no official authority. He gets his information from talking to people, looking things up, calling in favours, and so on. And, since the novel takes place before the age of the Internet, there’s quite a bit of following people, asking around, eavesdropping on conversations, and the like.

On another level, this is a horror novel, and that element plays an important role, too. Several of the characters are not what they seem to be, and the supernatural is woven in several ways into the story. I can’t give a lot of detail without spoiling the story. Suffice it to say that, in this novel, the sense of evil is quite real, and there are several sequences that focus on that. Readers who dislike horror films will notice this.

As you can imagine, part of the novel’s suspense comes from its pace, and from the ‘jolts’ in the plot. And that’s consistent with the horror element (e.g. ‘Don’t answer the telephone!’ ‘Don’t go down that alley!’). There are several ‘action sequences,’ and readers who enjoy a fast-paced novel will appreciate this.

The mystery itself – what happened to Johnny Favorite – is solved, and Hjortsberg gives several clues to the solution throughout the novel. They’re subtle hints, so readers who enjoy matching wits with the author will want to pay close attention. It’s not really a whodunit sort of novel, but there is an element of looking for clues and getting information, as there is in most PI novels.

The story takes place in New York City, and Hjortsberg depicts that setting in detail. As Angel tracks down leads, looks for people, and so on, readers get a sense of what the city is like. Along the way, Hjortsberg provides a few pieces of information about the history of the city. It’s not a major component of the novel, but it’s woven into it.

Falling Angel is a dark, bleak PI novel that takes place in the unique world of New York. It’s also a horror story that builds and plays out through the PI format. The novel features a low-rent detective who knows the city as well as anyone does, and an eerie set of mysteries. But what’s your view? Have you read Falling Angel? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 26 June/Tuesday, 27 June – Not a Creature Was Stirring – Jane Haddam

Monday, 3 July/Tuesday, 4 July – Inspector Imanishi Investigates –  Seichō Matsumoto

Monday 10 July/Tuesday, 11 July – A Morbid Taste For Bones – Ellis Peters


Filed under Falling Angel, William Hjortsberg

28 responses to “In The Spotlight: William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel

  1. Great to see this novel get some light – I really admire it’s Woolrich-like mix of elements. And the finale is certainly unforgettable. Hope the late author runs no risk of being forgotten. The movie has a few missteps but it is still pretty powerful stuff

    • I agree, Sergio. The movie is fine stuff, isn’t it? And it’s interesting that you mention Woolrich. I certainly see some parallels in the way both authors blend in different sorts of elements. Thanks for that perspective. And yes – the ending is unforgettable.

  2. This is one of the scariest things I have ever read, Margot, and the reveal gave me a jolt I’ve never forgotten. You’ll understand now why I felt reluctant to recommend it. You are right. It does exude a real sense of evil.

  3. Read this a long time ago. Need to read it again. Luckily I still have it.

  4. Hmm… I’m intrigued more by the horror elements than the PI side of it. And the fact that your commenters have been so impacted by it makes it even more appealing… perhaps one to save for the darker nights…

    • Well, it’s definitely not a light, easy read, FictionFan. It probably is one best saved for those dark, rainy nights when every creak sounds ominous… I will say this. The horror element is most definitely there, and it’s blended in with the story so that it doesn’t seem too contrived. If you read this, I’ll be very interested in what you think.

  5. Col

    Margot it’s been such a long time since I read this, but it is a book that has stayed with me, remembered at odd moments. Not many books have that powerful effect.

    • That’s quite true, Col. It is the unusual book that has that sort of impact even years later. When that happens, you know you’ve read one of those powerful novels.

  6. I’m not sure I’d enjoy this one, Margot. Horror films scare me! 😮

  7. This sounds quite scary – haven’t heard of either the book nor its author. Thank you, as always, for introducing me to something new.

    • It is scary, Marina Sofia. And in several ways it’s not exactly for the faint of heart. As to introducing new books and authors, you’ve done plenty of that yourself…

  8. I always enjoy your spotlights, Margot. I find such interesting books to add to my TBR list.

  9. New author and title for me, Margot. Though, I like the idea of reading horror in a crime fiction.

  10. Although this book is quite gruesome and violent, and has elements that I often prefer to avoid, – still it is an incredible, compelling, astonishing book, and one that sticks in my mind. I couldn’t read it too often, but it will always be on my list of best books.

    • It is, indeed, both gruesome and violent in places, Moira. It’s easy to see, though, how it could draw the reader in and stay for a while, if I can put it that way.

  11. I read FALLING ANGEL decades ago. It was original and unique. Nice review!

  12. such lovely, brutal darkness! haunting, seductively scary book.

    Enjoyed your excellent review, many thanks for reminding me of this, have it in a box/pile *somewhere*, last read about ten years ago – time for another reread.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mizabigail. I’m so glad you enjoyed this analysis. And it is, indeed, a scary book, isn’t it? And there’s plenty of darkness…

  13. William Hjortsberg died in April, a day or so after completing the sequel.

  14. Because most things I have read about this book note the horror and gruesomeness of the book, I have avoided it. But so many people like it a lot in spite of those issues, I guess I should give it a try.

    • It’s definitely got a strong horror element, Tracy. It also has a strong PI element, too. It’s certainly not your ‘garden variety’ sort of novel. If you do read it, I hope you’ll post a review; I’ll be interested in what you think of it.

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