Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

published 1978

Falling Angel

Descriptions from throughout the book, which is set in 1959.

Harry Angel meets his client:
Seated there in a custom-made blue pin-stripe suit with a blood-red rosebud in his lapel was a man who might have been anywhere between forty-five and sixty.

A doctor at a nursing-home:
He wore a rumpled brown herringbone suit several sizes too large. I guessed him to be somewhere near seventy.

Another character describes Harry Angel:
“Was he on the heavy side? Not fat exactly but overweight? Slovenly? By that I mean a sloppy dresser, wrinkled blue suit and shoes that need a shine. Full black mustache, closely cropped hair starting to go grey?”

But this is Harry on a better day:
Wearing a pressed brown worsted suit, a white shirt crisp from the laundry, and an unstained necktie, I was ready for the snootiest French restaurant.

The police come calling:
This time it was a plainclothes dick wearing a wrinkled grey gabardine raincoat unbuttoned over a brown mohair pipe-rack special with cuffs sufficiently shy of his perforated brogans to provide a sneak preview of his white athletic socks.

Harry at work:
I got my attaché case out of the office safe and was buttoning my overcoat when the phone rang.

Visiting a rich man:
[The man who answered the door]  wore a grey suit with tiny maroon pinstripes and seemed more like a bank teller than a butler.

observations: Yet another recommendation from Col’sCriminal Library: I don’t think he has actually reviewed this book on his blog, but he made a passing reference to its being one of the best books he’d ever read, and I was sufficiently intrigued to feel I had to get hold of it.

And, it was an absolute knockout.

I loved the writing style, enjoyed the rather gruesome plot, and then was completely and utterly confounded by the ending. So all in all, you could say it was an extraordinary reading experience.

It’s set in 1959, where PI Harry Angel is employed by a mysterious Mr Cyphre to track down a lost crooner, Johnny Favourite. Mr C says that Johnny owes him something on a contract. Harry Angel goes looking – to a nursing home in New Hampshire in the first instance and then back to New York. He visits Harlem, Coney Island, uptown & downtown, rich and poor. The style is perfect PI pastiche, beautifully done, with amazing descriptions of the places he visits – for example the ‘pavement the colour of gravestones’, and ‘the drapes sagged like the stockings of a hooker on a week-long drunk.’ Angel disguises himself in some overalls that ‘smelled faintly of ammonia, like pajamas after an orgy.’

It’s all so clever and dark, and of course the experienced reader knows there is something else going on. There is a supernatural element: fortune tellers and voodoo and horoscopes feature largely, particularly for this major female character:
People thought it was cute for a while, but it got too rich for their blue blood when she started casting spells in public… She was known as the ‘Witch of Wellesley.’
Falling Angel fortune

The descriptions of the many murders in the book are not for the faint of heart, but actually I thought the plot justified them in its own way.

A five star read. So good I’m going to have to do a second blog entry in the near future, and also look at the film that was made from the book in 1987, Angel Heart.

Hjortsberg gives frequent descriptions of people’s clothes. The picture at the top is a composite of the various men in the book, with no offence and no imputation of villainy to the people pictured.

I think it would take you a long time to guess the profession of the man on the right – hard-nosed reporter? Successful businessman? Corrupt but charming politican? Actually it is Ted Shawn, one of the pioneers of modern dance in America. He and Ruth St Denis (whose photo has appeared on the blog several times – she had wonderful costumes) founded the company Denishawn, and were amongst the first people to employ the luminescent blog favourite Louise Brooks – as a dancer before she went into films.

The top photo was taken in 1957 and is from the NYPL.

The second picture is a fortune teller, painting by Mikhail Vrubel.
It is from The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licenced under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Moira, glad you felt the same way and thanks for the mention. Read pre-blogging days, so no review...I have it saved for a re-read (time well spent I reckon) at some distant point in the future. I can recall reading to the end and being gob-smacked.....did that just happen?

    1. That's exactly how I felt about the ending! Such a clever book - I thought I'd see certain clues, but he was much too clever for me. I'd love to see your thoughts on it, so you need to re-read it....

  2. Very glad you enjoyed this, Moira. And those clothes descriptions sound very much up your street. The writing style seems terrific too. I'm not usually one for the gruesome, to be honest. But every once in a while, it can work, given the tone of a book.

    1. Me too Margot - I surprised myself by giving him a pass on the gruesomes. But truly this was one of the cleverest books I've ever read, and the story was in keeping with the style...

  3. I have read good things about this book, and thought maybe I had a copy of this, but no. You have convinced me to add it to my list. It could easily show up at the book sale.

    1. Yes, it seems to be a classic - which doesn't surprise me. What surprises me is that I hadn't really heard of it before, when it is so good.

  4. Thanks for reminding me of this, Moira. I read it ages ago and - like Col - was gobsmacked. I was even a bit frightened! Would be worth reading again to see how he did it.

    1. Yes, exactly - when I thought back there were a few clues, but I will re-read it one day to see how cleverly it was written. What I thought was brilliant was the way he gave quite overt clues to certain aspects, so that the reader was so busy noticing that, that they missed a few more pointers...


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