Many of you have seen the movie Angel Heart.
Did you know it was based on a book? That's right, folks, William Hjortsberg's
Falling Angel was the basis for the movie, and, Mickey Rourke notwithstanding,
it's a mighty fine adaptation. Even if you've seen the movie, the book is well
worth a read, but those of you who haven't seen the movie are in for a special
Falling Angel tells the story of Harry Angel:
a P.I. hired by a mysterious stranger to find out the whereabouts of 1940's
crooner Johnny Favorite. What seems fairly straightforward at first glance becomes
more and more complicated as the investigation continues. Soon bodies start
appearing and it looks like our man Angel is being set up to take the fall.
Every new piece of the puzzle he finds reveals just how much of the story he
hasn't been told. The investigation takes many unexpected turns and eventually
Harry ends up involved with blues musicians, fake swamis, voodoo priestesses
and a satanic cult.
Although the story is chock full of supernatural elements,
the style is completely a hard-boiled detective story of the Hammett/Chandler/Cain
era. It's a nice juxtaposition of style and content. The noir detective tends
toward the cynical anyway, so Angel's disbelief in the occult occurrences rings
true. The crime novels from that era deal with all kinds of conspiracies and
chicanery, but everything is fully grounded in reality. There's always a reason,
a human reason, for all the trouble that occurs. It's a treat to take that same
style and those same assumptions and look at them all from a different angle.
Hjortsberg does an excellent job in keeping the reader
guessing as the plot unfolds. Just when you think you know what's going to happen
(or what just happened), the story slips away from your grasp. Hjortsberg plays
us just as subtly and just as thoroughly as his characters play one another.
Up until the final revelations, you're never quite sure just how it's all going
to turn out.
And now for the bad news: those of you who've seen
Angel Heart know the surprise that Hjortsberg has in store for the reader.
Knowing how it all turns out before you get there is a real bitch. While this
doesn't invalidate the story, it does mean that you get thwacked in the forehead
with foreshadowing every other paragraph or so. This was incredibly disappointing
to me the first time I read Falling Angel. Given the style of the book,
the story that's told and the ending of that story, I can imagine the impact
the book could have had on me. I was actually angry at the movie for being too
good of an adaptation and therefore spoiling a mighty fine read. But you know
what? If the worst thing you can say about a book is that someone made a pretty
good movie out of it, then that's probably a pretty safe recommendation.