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Angel’s Inferno (No Exit Press, £9.99) by William Hjortsberg.
While the work of New York-born William Hjortsberg is not well-known even in his native America, thanks to Alan Parker’s film adaptation of Falling Angel, Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel, movie fans on both sides of the Atlantic will be familiar with it. Initially published in Playboy as a serialized book, Parker renamed it Angel Heart. He cast Harry Angel as the doomed private eye of Mickey Rourke, and Louis Cyphre as Robert De Niro, who hides behind the alias of Old Nick. Parker moved the action from New York to New Orleans and eliminated some of Hjortsberg’s initial ambiguities, but otherwise kept the plot unchanged, right down to the setting of the 1950s. And now, more than four decades later, there’s the sequel, finished at the age of 76 shortly before the death of Hjortsberg in 2017.
Despite this time gap, at the same point where Falling Angel ended, Hjortsberg continues the tale – in the spring of 1959, around a week before the Easter release of Some Like It Hot (ha!), with Harry accused of murder and handcuffed in his own apartment by a New York City police officer while contemplating the grotesquely mutilated corpse of his teenage lover, Epiphany Proudfoot. The fact that she is also his daughter, and that he is not Harry Angel, but Johnny Favourite, a former crooner who sold his soul to the devil and then tried to break the bargain, is a fact that our wise-cracking protagonist slowly becomes apparent.
Readers familiar with the version of Angel Heart’s Faust tale should find Angel’s Inferno easy enough to follow, and Hjortsberg sprinkles to enlighten any stragglers in occasional explanatory passages. Again, the plot is described as a straightforward first-person, hard-hitting narrative that mimics the style of the period’s hard-boiled detective stories. However, Hjortsberg has Johnny kill his captor in the style of Thomas Harris, author of Hannibal Lecter, and leave the U.S. for Europe. It’s Paris and a life in a series of posh hotels in this case, paid for with an ill-gotten amount of cash. There is also a very rare and very old silver coin in Johnny’s pocket that guarantees him access to an exclusive club of devil worshipers.
Hjortsberg, who once wrote a crime novel about Houdini, Conan Doyle, and Edgar Allan Poe’s ghost, has great fun with the real-life characters in Paris in the late 1950s who wreaked havoc. There’s no place for Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard, the French New Wave greats, who were making their early films on the streets of the Left Bank at the time, but Hjortsberg has Johnny hanging out with jazz greats like Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell and Zoot Sims, and there’s a starring role for a dour William S. Burroughs, who was staying at the Beat Hotel at the time. It’s not a flattering portrait, and Hjortsberg is involved in a murder outside the famous Montmartre cabaret Lapin Agile by Johnny Burroughs and his friend Gregory (presumably the delinquent poet Gregory Corso).
“Elsewhere, in Michelin-starred restaurants, Johnny lingers over exquisite meals, drinking endless bottles of cognac, champagne, Bordeaux and claret – so far, so very James Bond – and smoking Lucky Strikes instead of the nearby “pills,” Gitanes. Bijou Jolicoeur, the African-American owner of a voodoo cabaret where goats are sacrificed every night, falls in love with him and then goes to bed with her. And he’s putting his ultimate target on a bloody path – a showdown with Louis Cyphre, who hired Harry Angel to track down Johnny Favorite, knowing full well that they’re one and the same, and the man Johnny blamed Epiphany and others for the murder. It is this quest that finally takes him to Rome and to the final climatic scene in the ancient chamber beneath – where else? – from the Vatican.
For Johnny Favorite, an exciting and very welcome second installment, but given the bold and exciting final, it is obvious that the death of Hjortsberg has robbed us of a rousing third installment (and distinctly sulfurous).