REVIEW: Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

Falling AngelFalling Angel by William Hjortsberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If a mystery gets mixed with the occult or the supernatural, the result is often disastrous for the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Falling Angel is an exception to the rule.

Struggling private investigator Harry Angel is hired by a foreign client, Louis Cyphre, to find Johnny Favorite, a crooner from before the war. Favorite is supposed to stay at a private hospital in upstate New York, where he is treated for ‘shell shock’ sustained in the war, but when Cyphre tries to visit him he gets the runaround.
Angel visits the private hospital, only to learn that Favorite was transferred to the VA hospital in Albany in 1945. The transfer is bogus, but the person responsible turns up dead, so Angel has to dig in Favorite’s past in order to track him down.
Favorite used to hang out with an eclectic crowd—fortune tellers, musicians, voodoo priestesses and occultists—and Angel’s search takes him from the heights of the Upper West Side to the depths of Harlem.
The missing person case turns sour when it looks like Favorite is desperately trying not to be found; desperate enough to kill anyone who might know where to find him.
Angel follows, descending deeper and deeper into Favorite’s sordid past, only to end up knee-deep in corpses and to find his own past connected to Favorite’s in the most unusual fashion.

Not only are all the characters in this mystery finely drawn, the dialogue is quirky and surprising and the Faustian ending brings the mystery to a satisfying conclusion.

This novel was also filmed as Angel Heart, with Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel and Robert De Niro as Louis Cyphre.

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REVIEW: Looking for Chet Baker: an Evan Horne mystery

Looking for Chet Baker: An Evan Horne MysteryLooking for Chet Baker: An Evan Horne Mystery by Bill Moody

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a Jazz enthusiast, I can appreciate books revolving around Jazz musicians. And since Evan Horne is in my hometown Amsterdam when he’s looking for Chet Baker, that makes it all the more interesting.

I enjoyed Evan’s first person narration, and I know Mr. Moody is a musician himself by the way he can write interestingly about performances and the life of musicians.

Evan is visited by his friend Ace in London, just before Evan is to depart for Amsterdam. Ace is a writer and needs Evan to help him research a book on Chet Baker, who died in Amsterdam after falling out of a second story hotel window. Evan, who has been burned by his curiosity and his impromptu investigations before, refuses to assist Ace and leaves him to play the reminder of his gigs in London.

Ace departs for Amsterdam, but by the time Evan arrives, Ace has moved out of his hotel and disappeared. When Evan finds Ace’s portfolio on Chet Baker, something he wouldn’t just ‘leave behind’, Evan realizes something is rotten in Amsterdam and goes looking for Ace.

Although as a suspense author myself I figured out the plot pretty soon, it was a joy to follow Evan through Amsterdam. I liked his easy camaraderie with veteran saxophone player Fletcher Paige and Mr. Moody catches the atmosphere and laid-back attitude of Amsterdam pretty good.

For the musical side of the story, Mr. Moody really knows what he’s talking about. The Amsterdam part of the story has some problems though. I know the area Mr. Moody describes pretty good (I live about ten minutes walking from the Zeedijk and the Red Light District) and while many things are accurately described, there were plenty of times where the view was biased towards American sensibilities, the sort of seedy, semi-dangerous Amsterdam foreigner hope to find in a city that’s safer than probably any city in the US.

Apart from having to remind myself time and time again that the book was first published in 2002, and therefore featured landmarks and situations that aren’t there anymore. Jazzclub Bimhuis moved in 2005 to its current location on the Piet Heinkade and you cannot find a payphone in Amsterdam (everybody has cell phones nowadays). So it was kind of a shock when one of the characters did use a cell phone near the end of the book.

Since the book describes the official Chet Baker memorial, I guess Mr. Moody researched/visited Amsterdam between 1999 when the official memorial plaque was fixed to the front of the Prins Hendrik hotel, and 2002, the first publication date of the book. By that time, the seediness of the Zeedijk was more than a decade in the past.

For those who are interested in the memorial, both the official and the ‘illegal’ Chet Memorial can be viewed on this website.

Some of the Dutch (street) names are flubbed, like a Dutchman called ‘De Hass’ (Hass is German, the Dutch name would be De Haas), and Prins Hendrik is sometimes spelled as Henrik. The descriptions of the coffeeshops seems more like a description of an opium den. Another thing that bugged me was that Mr. Moody used the phrase ‘put him off’ where the phrase should’ve been ‘blew him off’, once in a narrative, once in a letter.

Despite these flaws I enjoyed this story and I’ll probably read more of Mr. Moody’s books, especially if they feature more Amsterdam…

3.5/5 stars.

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