Twice a Theakston’s Old Peculier award-winner, Denise Mina revisits her childhood, the voodoo-laced Falling Angel and the film that inspired her to become a writer – for all the wrong reasons. Definitely a read for Hallowe’en.
The most inspiring crime film, for me, is Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, because it’s utter pants. It’s inspiring because it shows you what books can do and what films can’t begin to manage.
I read Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg when I was twelve, really far too young to read such a violent book, but my parents didn’t regulate our reading. I had just abandoned a book called For Those About to Die, about the different types of shows the Romans put on in the coliseum. I still wonder why that book was in the house.
Falling Angel, by contrast, did have gore and horrible stuff in it, but the narrative, the voice, the shifts in tone still resonate with me. I still remember lines from it – ‘a small man’s revenge’, when someone put too much sugar in their boss’s coffee.
But the tone, the tone’s the thing. Chandleresque protagonist Harry Angel is a lovable, melancholy loser. Having lost the tip of his nose to a bullet in Korea, Harry has had a plastic surgery repair that melted into a blob when he fell asleep on the beach at Coney Island.
As he investigates the case of a missing band leader, the book slowly morphs into a far, far darker story.
Although the screenplay was written by Hjortsberg, it’s very obviously an Alan Parker film. It has his fingerprints all over it: the clean narrative arc, the metaphors that smash you in the chops.
The shift of setting to New Orleans from New York undermines the voodoo reveal halfway through. The film screams of a storyteller who doesn’t trust their audience to get it. Even starring Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro and Lisa Bonet, it’s not a patch on the atmospheric novel. I waited nine years for that film to come out.
Entirely possible: I was young and impressionable and would read it differently now. Entirely true: Falling Angel is the reason I became a crime writer.
Utter, utter pants. Read the book instead.
Denise Mina is the author of nine novels. She also writes short stories, and in 2006 wrote her first play. She is a regular contributor to TV and radio. Her novels The End of the Wasp Season and Gods and Beasts have both won the prestigious Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, and she is the only author ever to win the award two years running. She is currently adapting The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo into graphic novels.