This book was doubly hard to put down. Not only is the story compelling, but the language is so lively you’re anxious to see what surprises the next paragraph will bring. It’s sort of like Dashiell Hammett on steroids, except the focus is not on crime, but on the jazz scene of the '40s and '50s.
A Gold Medal original back in 1960, it's been out of print ever since. Until now. The book I read was a cool new edition from Black Gat Books, a new line of mass market paperbacks from Stark House Press. (And be advised--this ain't your father's mass market pb. The premium paper is bright white, and the book feels mighty substantial in your hand.)
Our hero for this one is Ben Parker, a bass player striving to make his way in the music business without selling his soul to the devil or the mob. On the flip side is one of the most purely evil dudes you’ll meet anywhere in fiction—a psychopath who calls himself Johnny Angel. Near the end of the book, Angel boasts that the only crimes he has yet to commit are incest and treason. And he’s not finished yet.
Parker and Angel represent the two extremes of the music business. Parker is a true talent, scrupulously honest and in it for the love of music. Angel is a blood-sucker, leeching off the talent of others and using every dirty trick imaginable to get rich and rise to the top.
The title of the book comes from a fictional song (stolen by Johnny Angel, natch) and named after the two-block-long railway that ran up and down L.A.’s Bunker Hill. While reading the book, I saw a news report that the railway, closed for safety reasons in 2013, would soon be back in service. Cool.
The novel follows Ben Parker’s career as a player, a band leader and record producer. At almost every turn, Johnny Angel rears his ugly head, performing new acts of infamy. Along the way, we meet torch singers, composers, drug addicts, mob thugs, movie producers, dirty deejays and an artists’ model who can’t her clothes on. We also get inside looks at the evils of payola, the birth and death of bop and the difference between hipsters and beatniks.
Like me, Cameron is a fan of pop culture, and the book is peppered with references to such icons as Dick Tracy, Tom Mix, Jimmy Durante, Raymond Chandler, G-8 and his Battle Aces, Hopalong Cassidy, Lon Chaney, Tinker Bell, Elvis the Pelvis, Buck Jones, Jack Benny, Little Orphan Annie and the Wizard of Oz. It's a blast, in more ways than one.
In the background, sort of on the edge of consciousness, World War II begins and ends and things heat up in Korea. Ben Parker does his part, and sums it up in four paragraphs:
I don’t know if it’s fair to blame my joining up on the girl with the lavender eyes. I guess I’d have gone into the war sooner or later anyways. Just about everybody did.
If you were around at that time you know about the war. If you weren’t, you might look through about two hundred issues of Life, or read Tolstoy. He said everything there is to say about war and this is a story about the music field.
So smoke a cigarette or something while you picture the time lapse and join me along about the spring of ’46 in the rest room that used to be under Duffy Square.
The world was once more safe for democracy, the American way of life, the girl next door and Mom’s blueberry pie. I’d changed my ODs for a new set of blue threads and the only way you could tell Benny Parker had been away was that I’d traded my left knee cap for a brand new silver plate, and three or four gray hairs were sprouting over each ear.
Angel’s Flight was Lou Cameron's first novel, and I was pleased to learn he wrote many more – some thrillers, some westerns and some movie tie-ins. Among those I look forward to checking out are the first in the Longarm series (he went on to pen about fifty of them), the Stringer western series, and all thirty-six books of the Renegade western series (as by Ramsay Thorne). I have a lot of reading to do.