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Something Like a Review: Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

In general, I like the idea of the pulp private investigator/detective fiction of the 30’s and 40’s. There’s a romance and mystique around the ramshackle offices with tar-streaked walls, the jaded, bitter detective questioning some knock-out in heels and an ermine-trimmed coat that simply reeks of trouble. There’s a certain comfort of knowing that after he knocks back a drink or two with some colorful little stoolie, the ex-cop-turned-private-dick is going to find himself embroiled in a Gordian knot of a crime, but will puzzle it out in the end. Gritty, noir fiction like that lets us explore the seedy side that most of us will pass through with our breath held, car doors locked and a death-grip on the steering wheel, praying all the while that we don’t get car-jacked before we get back to the better part of the city. We know that nice girls and boys like us shouldn’t really be there, but these novels let us writhe in a world that is enticing, if only for its taboos.

Falling Angel has that dark, seedy, gritty feel and it was a pleasure to read. Harry Angel isn’t exactly the typical (anti-)hero of a pulp detective novels, but from the very beginning, the reader senses there’s something…off about him. It’s an elusive sensation and one the reader becomes accustomed to, but returns to in an “Oh my God, why didn’t I see that coming?” moment at the end. The novel immerses Angel in a world of voodoo, black magic, satanic ritual and a host of duplicitous characters, and he leaves forever changed by his discoveries.

This story is labyrinthine and dark and, at times, sordid, but not everything that happens between the pages is shrouded in mystery. There are moments where the perceptive reader will easily anticipate what’s coming next (like the reason why Angel’s client is seeking Johnny Favorite) though Angel himself is not aware, and then just shy of the ending, the only possible outcome becomes very clear, the proverbial pieces hanging just out of the reader’s grasp fall together with a quiet, dreadful, heavy epiphany that only accelerates the story into the brick wall ending. The hints, the premonitions and the realization of the near future for the characters does not detract from the story, however. There’s plenty for the reader to chase, puzzle out and wonder how it will all resolve. Particularly at the end, the revelation (or realization) propels the reader through the remaining pages to find out exactly how it all plays out. The reader feels the resignation, the dread and acceptance and is compelled to follow it to whatever end it brings.

This story is a great thriller. It will engross the reader with a penchant for the darker side, enthrall those with a yen to explore taboos and the forbidden. Bear in mind that given the genre, it comes with a few prerequisite campy moments, but even with them, it stands as a story well told. Fallen Angel is not, however, a story the reader should skim through nor is it for the hypersensitive or those seeking the hypoallergenic world of political correctness. There are prejudiced characters who use racial slurs, but it is appropriate for the time and the New York City in the story’s setting. There are moments when the reader will cringe at the breaching of religious, sexual and moral taboos, but again, they are suited to the story at hand. And beware the urge to devour the story as quickly as possible. If the reader does not take their time through the story, the nuances and minor tells are missed and lose their impact. Give a day or a weekend to this one. Savor it. Grin through the campy moments. Get your hands dirty in the world Hjortsberg creates. Take your time, but make sure you don’t skip it. It’s entirely worth the read.

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