Angel’s Inferno by William Hjortsberg (No Exit Press, £9.99)

Although not well known by name even in his native America, the work of New York-born William Hjortsberg will be familiar to film fans on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to Alan Parker’s 1987 adaptation of Falling Angel, Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel. Originally serialised in Playboy, of all places, it was re-titled Angel Heart by Parker, who cast Mickey Rourke as damned private investigator Harry Angel and Robert De Niro as Louis Cyphre, a thinly-veiled alias for Old Nick himself. Parker relocated the action from New York to New Orleans and cut away some of the ambiguity of Hjortsberg’s original but otherwise left the story intact, right down to the 1950s setting. And now, over four decades on, here’s the sequel, completed just before Hjortsberg’s death in 2017 aged 76.

In defiance of that time gap, Hjortsberg picks up the story in the same scene in which Falling Angel ended – in the Spring of 1959, a week or so before the Easter release of Some Like It Hot (ha!), with Harry suspected of murder and shackled to a New York cop in his own apartment as he views the grotesquely mutilated body of his teenage lover Epiphany Proudfoot. That she is also his daughter and he is not Harry Angel but Johnny Favourite, a former crooner who sold his soul to the Devil and then tried to welch on the deal, are facts that are slowly becoming clear to our wise-cracking protagonist.

The reader familiar with Angel Heart’s take on the Faust story should find Angel’s Inferno easy enough to follow, and Hjortsberg drops in occasional expository passages to clue in any laggards. Again, the story is presented as a pithy, punchy first-person narrative which apes the style of the hard-boiled detective fiction of the period, though taking a leaf from Hannibal Lecter creator Thomas Harris, Hjortsberg has Johnny kill his captor and flee the US for Europe. In this case it’s Paris and a high-rolling life in a series of ritzy hotels, paid for courtesy of an ill-gotten windfall. Also in Johnny’s pocket, a very special and very old silver coin which will guarantee him access to an exclusive club of Devil-worshippers.

Hjortsberg, who once wrote a whodunnit involving Houdini, Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe’s ghost, has tremendous fun with some of the real life characters who were kicking around Paris in the late 1950s. There’s no space for French New Wave luminaries Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard, who were shooting their early films on the streets of the Left Bank at the time, but Hjortsberg lets Johnny hang out with jazz greats Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell and Zoot Sims and there’s a starring role for a lugubrious William S Burroughs, then resident at the so-called Beat Hotel. It isn’t a flattering portrait, and Hjortsberg has Johnny involve Burroughs and his friend Gregory (presumably delinquent poet Gregory Corso) in a murder outside legendary Montmartre cabaret Lapin Agile.

Elsewhere, Johnny lingers over exquisite meals in Michelin starred restaurants, quaffs countless glasses of cognac, champagne, Bordeaux and claret – so far, so very James Bond – and smokes Lucky Strikes in preference to the local ‘pills’, Gitanes. He falls in with, and then into bed with, Bijou Jolicoeur, the African-American owner of a voodoo cabaret where goats are sacrificed nightly. And he sets about cutting a bloody path towards his ultimate goal – a show-down with Louis Cyphre, who hired Harry Angel to track down Johnny Favourite knowing full well they were one and the same, and the man Johnny has fingered for the killing of Epiphany and others. It’s this quest which will eventually take him to Rome and a climactic final scene in an ancient chamber below – where else? – the Vatican.

A suspenseful and very welcome second outing for Johnny Favourite, though given the audacious and twist-tastic finale it’s clear Hjortsberg’s death has robbed us of what would have been a rip-roaring (and decidedly sulphurous) third instalment.