Category Archives: William Hjortsberg

Exposing Every Weakness*

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot solves the stabbing murder of a retired business tycoon. At one point, he has this to say:
 

‘‘Let us take a man – a very ordinary man. A man with no idea of murder in his heart. There is in him somewhere a strain of weakness – deep down.’’
 

We all have flaws, of course, and in some cases, those flaws – those strains of weakness – can be used to manipulate us. For instance, someone who’s secretly a little greedy can be tempted quite a lot by money.

In crime fiction, this can make for an interesting layer of psychological tension, as well as a character motivation. There are lots of examples in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is hired by Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs to create a Murder Hunt event for an upcoming fête. On the surface, it seems quite innocent – all in fun. But Mrs. Oliver suspects that more is going on, and she asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who the killer is. One of the ‘people of interest’ in the story is a scientist, Alec Legge, who’s rented a nearby cottage. As Poirot finds out more about the case, he discovers that Legge was drawn in, if you will, by some dangerous people. He had, as Poirot puts it, sympathy for a certain political party, and the more powerful members of that party wanted to exploit both that sympathy and Legge’s science skills. When Legge tried to extricate himself, he found it much harder and more dangerous than he imagined. It’s an interesting look at the way people’s biases and weaknesses can be used against them.

William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel introduces readers to low-rent New York PI Harry Angel. The novel takes place in the 1950’s, not very long after the end of World War II. One day, Angel gets a call from the prestigious and upmarket law firm of McIntosh, Winesap and Spy. Ordinarily, such a firm wouldn’t hire a PI like Angel. But one of their clients, a man named Louis Cyphre, wants to find a man, Jonathan Liebling, who’s gone missing. According to Cyphre, Liebling, who went by the name of Johnny Favorite, was a talented jazz musician whom Cyphre helped at the start of his career. In exchange, Favorite promised Cyphre ‘a certain collateral.’ Then, Liebling was drafted into service in World War II. He came back from the war suffering from physical wounds as well as what we now call PTSD. Eventually, he was placed in a special hospital. Now, he’s disappeared from the hospital, and Cyphre wants to find him. The fee is tempting, and Angel takes the case. He soon finds that this is no ordinary missing person case. Instead, Angel’s been drawn into a web of horror, and his weaknesses are being exploited.

We also see that in John Grisham’s The Firm. In that novel, Harvard Law School graduate Mitchell ‘Mitch’ McDeere gets an offer from the Memphis law firm of Brendini, Lambert, & Locke. It’s by no means the only offer he’s gotten. McDeere is smart, has a good background, and is hungry for success, as many young lawyers are. And that’s exactly the sort of lawyer Brendini, Lambert, & Locke want. They make McDeere an irresistible offer, and he signs on. At first, all seems to be going well. McDeere’s new colleagues help him pass the Tennessee Bar Exam, and he’s welcomed in other ways, too. But it’s not long before he begins to have some questions. Several attorneys connected with the firm have died, and McDeere wonders about the circumstances. By the time he starts to get some answers, though, he’s in deep, as the saying goes. His own ambition has drawn him in and been exploited. If he’s going to stay alive, he’s going to have to find a way to extricate himself.

In Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, we meet Winter, a small-time Glasgow drug dealer who wants to make a name for himself in the criminal underworld. He’s caught the attention of Peter Jamieson and his right-hand man, John Young. Jamieson is a ‘rising star’ in the underworld himself, and he has no interest in sharing the spotlight with an upstart who’s not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. So, he and Young hire Callum MacLean to ‘take care of’ Winter. MacLean has a good reputation and knows how to do the job. He soon sets his plan in motion. And, even though things don’t go exactly the way he intended, we see how weaknesses such as greed and desire can make a person very vulnerable.

Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy is in part the story of Olavo Bettencourt. He’s a wealthy and successful São Paolo advertising executive who has a life that most people would envy. He has a beautiful home in a closely-guarded part of the city. He has a gorgeous ‘trophy wife,’ and a healthy son, Olavinho. As Brazil’s political system gets a bit more open, several political candidates are advertising more, and they’re depending on people like Bettencourt. And that’s to say nothing of the large companies with which Bettencourt does business. He very much enjoys the money, perks, and power of his situation, but he’s really not as much in control as he thinks. In fact, some even more powerful and dangerous people have used Bettencourt’s weaknesses against him, and he’s now caught in a web. Then, a group of gangsters decides to abduct Olavinho – not an outrageous idea, considering the family’s wealth. They put together their plan and set it in motion. But they kidnap the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinho, the gangsters find that they have taken the mute son of the Bettencourts’ housekeeper. Now, the gang has to decide what to do about the boy they’ve abducted, and what to do about Olavinho. For his part, Bettencourt has to decide just what to tell the media and police. After all, too many questions about him could land him in jail…

We all have our weaknesses. They’re part of what makes us human. And it can make for an interesting layer of character development and suspense when those weaknesses are exploited.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s The Happiest Days of Our Lives.

6 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Edney Silvestre, John Grisham, Malcolm Mackay, William Hjortsberg

One Little Choice*

In many stories, there’s a point of decision. And that decision has consequences that drive the rest of the plot. It may not seem like a momentous decision at the time the character takes it, but it often turns out to make all the difference in the story.

Certainly, we see those sorts of moments in crime fiction. For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to Anne Bedingfield. Her father has recently died, leaving her with very little money. She doesn’t envision a life for herself as, say, a typist. And she’s not really interested in settling down and marrying. She’s a bit at loose ends when she happens to witness a tube accident in which a man falls (or is pushed) under an oncoming train. Anne happens to pick up a piece of paper that the dead man had in his pocket, and soon works out that it refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, she goes to a travel agency and books passage on the ship. That decision turns out to have important consequences for her, as she ends up caught in a web of intrigue, smuggled gems, and murder.

William Hjortsberg’s historical (1959) novel Falling Angel is the story of a low-rent New York private investigator named Harry Angel. One day, he gets a call from the upmarket law offices of McIntosh, Winesap, and Spy. It seems that one of their clients, Louis Cyphre, wants to find a man named Jonathan Liebling. Better known as Johnny Favorite, Liebling was a gifted jazz musician. Cyphre says that he helped Johnny Favorite at the start of his career, in return for which he was promised certain ‘collateral,’ which he doesn’t specify. Then, Liebling was drafted into service in World War II. He returned from the war physically and emotionally badly damaged, and was placed in a psychiatric hospital. Then, he disappeared from the hospital. Now, Cyphre wants to find him. Angel’s decision to take the case and look for Johnny Favorite turns out to have major consequences, and drives the rest of the plot. He ends up caught in a case of horror, multiple murder, and worse.

In Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger, the police inform Fabien Delorme that his wife, Sylvie, has died in a car crash. Delorme will miss his wife, but their marriage hadn’t been a loving one for some time. What’s worse, in his mind, is that Sylvie was not alone in the car. She had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, who also died in the crash. Against his better judgement, Delorme sneaks a look at the information the police have on Arnoult. That’s how he learns that Arnoult left a widow, Martine. Delorme’s decision to peek at that information, and then act on it, turns out to be a fateful one. He becomes obsessed with Martine, and it’s not long before things spiral completely out of control for both of them.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red is the first to feature Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s at a crossroads in her career, and wants to cement her position at the top of New Zealand journalism. It’s not going to be easy, as there are younger, ‘hungry’ journalists coming up the ranks. Then, she learns about a possible story that could exactly what she needs. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years for the murder of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the killings. Now, little pieces of evidence suggest that Bligh might be innocent. If that’s true, it’s a major story. Several people caution Thorne against pursuing the story. But she decides to go after it. Doing so has real personal and professional consequences for her, and for other people in her life.

And then there’s Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy. In it, former safecracker/lockbreaker Jeet Singh has ‘gone straight,’ and now owns a Mumbai kiosk where he makes keys. Then, he gets a call from a former underworld connection, offering him quite a lot of money if he agrees to do a job. Singh refuses outright. He doesn’t want to have any more to do with police or prison. Not long afterwards, he gets a visit from his former lover, Sushmita. She tells him that her wealthy husband died in what looked like a carjacking gone wrong. It’s since been proved to be a murder, and she’s suspected of hiring the killer. She has a good motive, too, as she stands to inherit a fortune. Now, she needs a good lawyer to help her clear her name, and she asks Singh for help. He’s still more than half in love with her, although she broke his heart. So, he agrees to get the money she needs. That decision draws Singh into the underworld again, and ends up putting him under suspicion of murder.

A decision may seem like a trivial one on the surface. But sometimes, even those smaller decisions can lead to very big consequences. And those consequences can be dangerous…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dave Malloy’s Hero.

6 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Paddy Richardson, Pascal Garnier, Surender Mohan Pathak, William Hjortsberg

Any Two-Bit Job That Pays*

Not every PI or attorney is well-known and sought-after by the rich and famous. In fact, some lawyers and PIs are very much ‘low rent.’ There are a variety of reasons for this, of course. Sometimes it’s because of the sorts of cases they take. Sometimes it’s because they simply don’t have recognition. There are other reasons, too.

These sorts of attorneys and PIs can make for interesting characters in crime fiction. For one thing, they may have interesting backstories. For another, the sorts of cases and people they deal with are often (not always) gritty, if I can put it that way. And that can add a layer of interest to a story, to say nothing of plot points.

For instance, in William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, which takes place in 1959, we are introduced to low-rent PI Harry Angel. He’s not used to dealing with ‘upper crust’ clients, but one day, he gets a call from an upmarket law firm. It seems that one of their clients, Louis Cyphre, wants to find a missing man. His quarry is talented jazz artist Jonathan Liebling, also known as Johnny Favorite. According to Cyphre, he helped Liebling out at the beginning of his career, in return for which he was promised certain ‘collateral.’  World War II intervened, and Liebling came back from combat physically and emotionally damaged. He was placed in a psychiatric hospital, but now, he’s disappeared. Angel agrees to take the case, and starts to ask questions. But he soon finds that this is no normal missing person case. Instead, he’s drawn into a web of murder, horror, and evil.

Fans of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder will know that he used to be a New York City police detective. A tragic accidental shooting changed everything, and as the series begins, he’s a down-at-the-heels occasional PI. He doesn’t even have his license at first, and he barely maintains a home. He doesn’t have his own office, either; instead, he holds court in local bars. As the series goes on, Scudder does a little better, gets his official PI license, and so on. But he still deals with plenty of gritty characters and places.

So does Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. When he loses his wartime (World War II) job at an aircraft manufacturing plant, he has to find some way to make a living. So, he accepts a commission to find a missing woman in Devil in a Blue Dress. From then, he begins to get a reputation for being able to find missing people and solve other problems. Like Scudder, he doesn’t have a regular office or a fine home. And a lot of the people he helps are ‘regular people,’ rather than wealthy, well-connected people. As the series goes on, he gets an official PI license, and has some success. But he generally doesn’t mix with those who go to ‘A-list’ parties.

There’s also C.B. McKenzie’s Rodeo Grace Garnet, whom we meet in Bad Country. He’s a former rodeo star who now works as an occasional bounty hunter and low-rent private investigator. He doesn’t have an office, or post advertisements. Instead, he gets clients by word of mouth. That’s how he hears that Katherine Rocha wants him to look into the death of her teenage grandson, Samuel. The official explanation for the boy’s death is that he fell from a bridge (or possibly, committed suicide). But there’s also evidence that he might have been shot, and knocked from the bridge. If so, his grandmother wants to know who shot the boy and why. Garnet takes the case, and soon finds that some wealthy and well-connected people do not want the death investigated.

Fans of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski will know that she, too, starts out as what you might call a ‘low-rent’ PI. Certainly, she doesn’t live a wealthy life, and her clients are not always well-connected.

There’s also mystery novelist and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms’ Dinger. He’s a low-rent PI in post-World War II Las Vegas. He’s a tough, hardboiled sort of a guy, who’s not afraid to mix it up with all sorts of low-life types. Helms has published his Dinger stories in serial form. You can read Part One of one of them, Rose, right here. Once you do, you’ll want to read the other parts, too! I hope – I really do – that we’ll see more of Dinger. A-hem, Mr. Helms…

Martin Edwards’ Harry Devlin is a Liverpool-based attorney. But he’s not the sort you see in high-profile, lucrative cases. He’s a low-rent attorney who makes his living defending drunks, prostitutes and thieves, among others. He’s got a small place, and works in a cheap firm. So, he sees the gritty side of the city. In All The Lonely People, where we first meet him, Devlin is shocked when his ex-wife, Liz, comes for a visit. She says she’s left her current lover, Mick Coghlin, because he’s abusive, and she’s afraid of him. She asks to stay with Devlin a few days, and he agrees. Then, she disappears, and her body is found in an alley. Devlin feels guilty because he didn’t take Liz’ concerns seriously at first, and decides to find out who murdered her. At first, he assumes that Coghlin is the killer. But the more Devlin learns, the more possibilities there are. His search for the truth takes him into several of Liverpool’s seedy places.

And then there’s Attica Locke’s Jay Porter. When we are introduced to him, in Black Water Rising, he’s a low-rent Houston-area lawyer. It’s 1981, and Porter is trying to build his law business. But so far, he’s not been very successful. Then, in one plot thread, he gets drawn into the case of a fatal shooting. The trail leads to some very high, very well-protected places, and it’s a big risk for Porter. He’s black in what is still very much a white person’s world. And he’s up against some considerable opposition.

Low-rent, two-bit, down-at-the-heel, whatever you call it, such fictional attorneys and PIs add an interesting layer to crime fiction. They often deal with the sorts of cases others might not be willing to handle. And they themselves can be interesting characters.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Clouds’ Pocket.

21 Comments

Filed under Attica Locke, C.B. McKenzie, E. Michael Helms, Lawrence Block, Martin Edwards, Sara Paretsky, Walter Mosley, William Hjortsberg

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

28 Comments

Filed under Falling Angel, William Hjortsberg