Adventures in Bookland: Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg
A Faust for the private dick. Falling Angel, a novel set in New York, was filmed by Ridley Scott as Angel Heart and translocated to New Orleans for the humidity and the implied dark magic, but in the book New York works just as well. If you’ve seen neither book nor film, beware, this review contains spoilers. The hero, a private detective named Harry Angel, is hired by a mysterious client to trace a missing person, a singer who went missing despite him owing the client something rather important. The book slowly, but quite chillingly, reveals that the missing person is Angel himself, a man so wicked in his previous life that he had sold his soul to the devil – and now the devil wants payment. But the conceit is that Angel, to hide from his deal, hid the memory of his own past from himself so that the devil could not find him.
I had read the book before, maybe 20 years ago, so I remembered little of the plot other than this key point. Rereading it, I was impressed at how Hjortsberg subtly suggests that Angel, despite having bought a new life and, almost, a new soul, actually remains as horrible a person in his new persona as he was in his last. There’s nothing particularly obvious, just an accumulation of little details, but they become clear on rereading. All in all, a brilliantly constructed, thoroughly chilling book.