Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg: Five stars for the characters and detailed, but never boring, descriptions of New York in 1959. Harry Angel is a private detective living in the Chelsea Hotel. On the job, he drives and subways around town with soup stains on his tie. Harlem, Times Square, Coney Island, the apartment buildings, the restaurants and the old theatres — all of these are brought to life on Angel’s travels. I really get tired of books and movies about New York as I say in a review of “The 25th Hour”, below and on GoodReads. But this book made me interested in that city again.
Then there are the great characters: the Jazz player Toots from New Orleans who is into voodoo, the freak show fat woman on Coney Island, the patrician devil-trickster Louis Cyphre and many more. The novel is quite risqué, with the seventeen-year-old voodoo priestess Epiphany Proudfoot having an affair with Angel who is pushing forty. Also the black mass in an abandoned subway station that Angel spies on is quite shocking in terms of bloodshed and sex.
The plot centres around Angel being hired by Cyphre to find a long lost crooner called Jonny Favorite and this allows the usual private eye adventures to begin. However, this is a horror story and not just another hardboiled detective thriller. The plot gets a little overcomplicated. It was hard-going to understand the sequence of events after Angel met Favorite in Times Square in 1943. Like many, I came to the book after watching the Alan Parker directed movie “Angel Heart” starring Micky Rourke and Robert Dinero and set largely in New Orleans rather than New York. I think it is Rourke’s best movie.
The 25th Hour by David Benioff: Very readable, and a good study in how to develop characters and scenes. However, it is a bit overwritten in my opinion, I prefer sparse prose.
Mary’s hazel eyes drown in pools of painted shadow, pennies just visible at the bottom of the wishing well. Jakob wonders why she and her friends favor such a morbid style, as if their models were not chosen from the covers of slick magazines but the refrigerators of the city morgue. And her hair. When was the last time she washed her hair?
In saying that Benioff writes beautifully and with impressive flow. I was hooked by the prologue where Monty and his Ukrainian thug sidekick rescue a Pitbull lying wounded by the side of the road. This dog, Doyle, becomes an entertaining character in his own right. The plot does meander a bit, something you’ll know if you’ve seen the movie.
This is the tale of the golden boy, Monty – one who didn’t think the rules were from him – getting his comeuppance. I also thought Jakob, Monty’s high school teacher’s friend was a strong character, a man totally lacking in self-confidence, played with cringeworthy brilliance by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie. The book is also an ode to New York where Benioff grew up. Having seen so many movies set in New York and LA, I’d rather read about another American city.
One thing I didn’t really find convincing was the way Monty wooed Naturelle – leaving expensive gifts for her at her school. This seems a bit desperate, or was it just the practical way of doing things for Monty who always got what he wanted? Getting paid to write the screenplay allowed Benioff to quit his teaching job. While the book’s ending leaves us hanging, in real life a writer managing to quit his teaching job is a happy ending.