FALLEN ANGEL / MIRAGE (1952) by Howard Fast

I begin the second stage of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge with an early mystery from the pen of Howard Fast, probably still best known as the author of Spartacus, his epic tale of revolution in ancient Rome. Like so many writers of liberal outlook during the 1940s and 50s, he was jailed and blacklisted during the McCarthy witch hunts and so published many commercially orientated thrillers under a variety of pseudonyms. Differently from the likes of Gore Vidal, Fast found that his pseudonymous work, especially as ‘E.V. Cunningham’, was extremely popular and continued in parallel with the more ‘serious’ output that he reserved for his own name. In the case of the 1971 TV-movie WHAT’S A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU, he wrote the screenplay as Fast adapting one of his Cunningham books (Shirley), so both names appeared on-screen.

His amnesia thriller Fallen Angel was originally published as by ‘Walter Ericson’ and later retitled Mirage as a tie-in to the 1965 film adaptation. The following post will look at both the book and the film and is thus split in two halves, just like our protagonist’s mind …

1. Fallen Angel (1952)

“… there we were in the middle of the twentieth century but as helpless and isolated as man had ever been at the beginning of the world.”

Original hardback, cover artwork by Lew Keller.

David Stillman works on the 22nd floor of a New York skyscraper as a cost accountant. One evening the lights in the building go out, encouraging some of the staff to give way to jollity and frivolity under the cover of darkness. But Stillman is a sober fellow and decides to walk down the stairs and make his way home instead. Ironically named, this is a man aware that he is stuck in a rut, unhappy with the way that the world seems to be going. His disenchantment is initially arrested during his descent when he meets a woman in the stairwell sporting a distinctive yellow scarf. He doesn’t remember her yet she speaks in a familiar way and seems to know who he is. As they walk down, she confides that the blackout is probably not a power failure but a plot by the mysterious ‘Vincent’. When they reach the ground floor she becomes angry when he claims not to know her and leaves via the stairs to the sub-basement. He goes out into the street to discover that a man fell to his death from the same building – in fact, from the same floor. After a drink at a bar across the street. with the lights now back on, he tries to find out who the girl was but to no avail. More disturbingly, he sees that the stairs they took don’t lead to a basement or anywhere else – so where did she go?

“I walked down four flights of stairs that were not there”

On his way home he learns that the apparent suicide victim was Charles Calvin, a hugely important figure in the world of atomic energy who was in the middle of writing a report for the American government – in fact it was so important he was writing it directly for the President! This does little to alleviate Stillman’s existential malaise as he thinks about the man plunging down towards his death. His gloom is aggravated further when he finds a gun-wielding stranger in his apartment. Apparently the mysterious ‘Vincent’ now wishes that the apparently insignificant accountant leave the country and move to Hungary behind the Iron Curtain – and he has sent a hired gun to ensure it happens. Stillman manages to get away but realises that he is a marked man even though he has no idea why. Stillman’s growing sense of dissatisfaction and unease is not just a mid-life crisis but is rooted in something really sinister – the fact that he has a huge gap in his memory. He tries to see a psychiatrist fearing for his own sanity, but this turns into an unexpectedly hostile encounter. The symptoms that he eventually describes under questioning in fact are, he is told, a medical impossibility. Stillman has no friends at all, male or female, not even casual ones, and has no memory going any further back than three years before. He has apparently been an amnesiac for all these years, but without knowing it! He is left utterly shaken and alone.

“Everything began one morning when I woke up and answered an ad in the New York Times. Before that, there was nothing.”

Stillman, partly just to offset the terrible loneliness he now feels, eventually turns to private detective Caselle to try to find out who he really is and why somebody wants him out-of-the-way. The relationship with the detective becomes close almost immediately, the two finding  real kinship, not least because this is Caselle’s first case and he too is embarking on a new life. When they go back to the skyscraper, there is no evidence of Stillman’s office and none of the staff he knew are there. Caselle has doubts at first, but these are removed when he realises that they are being followed by one of Vincent’s men. Stillman once again meets the mysterious woman, who it turns out also works for the powerful ‘Vincent’, but she refuses to help him regain his lost memory. He drags her to visit Joe Turtle, the doorman who used to work at his building, but it’s a trap – the man has been killed and the police called. They manage to hide out with Turtle’s neighbours, this interlude turning into one of many moments in which Fast comments on social inequalities, in this case spurred by the fact that the neighbours are black. This is a tense thriller with several chases and murders and is  breathlessly narrated in the first person, but Fast was also a writer with a strong social agenda and this comes through on almost every page as he comments on humanity’s endless pursuit of power and the perils of the atomic age.

Even though published under a pseudonym and unmistakably a genre product with a really solid mystery at its centre, it is also a book that is very typical of its author in its depiction of people thrust out of the mainstream and into no man’s land – as pointed out by Frank Campenni,

“… works of imprisoned martyrs, abounding in Christ-figures and symbolic Judases, reflect their author’s bitter sense of entrapment and isolation, for he could neither publish with established houses nor leave the country.”

Howard Fast (Wikipedia)

Whatever name and title you find it published under, this is an above-average suspense yarn with a cracker jack plot (though a few stray elements are still left hanging at the end, it has to be said) and some strong characters tied together by a style that successfully conveys a really overpowering sense of paranoia. The social critique may make it seem a bit heavy in some respects but does help to distinguish it from many of the other similar books produced in the wake of the horrors of the second world war. In some respects it also deserves praise for the way that it precedes the work that Ross Macdonald would later produce about a decade later, applying deep social concerns to the structure of the mystery. The best way I can sum it up is as a real page-turner in the best sense of the word, even if its angst over the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation does seem to be a real remnant of the Cold War. It also inspired one very good movie (and one not so good one) …

2. MIRAGE (1965)

The book had a convoluted publishing history that saw it being made available under a variety of guises over the years. Originally published in December 1951 (the release date though is generally given as 1952) by Little, Brown as Fallen Angel by ‘Walter Ericson’, it was reprinted by Ace the following year as ‘The Darkness Within’, still under the Ericson byline. Then in 1965 it was filmed as MIRAGE with the story attributed to Ericson on-screen; the book was promptly reprinted under that title but now under Fast’s own name. To muddy things further, in 1968 the movie was remade as JIGSAW, with Fast credited as the author of the original story, Peter Stone for his earlier screenplay adaptation for MIRAGE while the new screenwriter (Ranald MacDougall) hid his own name under a pseudonym …

The 1965 film MIRAGE is actually a very faithful adaptation of the novel, the screenplay by Stone making very few structural changes but mainly working to smarten up the dialogue and make the main character a bit more charismatic as befitting major star Gregory Peck. Stone had become a hot property after working on two major Cary Grant films for the same studio (Universal), the comedy FATHER GOOSE (1964), for which he shared an Oscar with Frank Tarloff, and the Hitchockian comedy-thriller CHARADE, a minor classic. While Peck can’t really handle Stone’s witty banter as well as Grant he is great at suggesting the sheer angst and mounting frustration endured by the character as he tries to piece his life back together. The film is also a great example of very late Noir thanks to the impressive work of ace cinematographer Joe Macdonald and that of director Edward Dmytryk, who helped establish the genre at RKO in the 40s and who, ironically, and unlike Fast, did in fact ultimately ‘name names’ during the McCarthy hearings to get his career back. I have no idea what Fast thought about this, but one can speculate that he probably wasn’t too happy about it. Either way, it’s an excellent movie, highly atmospheric, and a very impressive adaptation too – it’s easily available as a region 1 DVD and all mystery fans should give it a whirl if they can as it is well worth the effort.

As part of the 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge, I plan on reading the following pre-1960 amnesia themed mysteries – but I am definitely open to further suggestions …

Murderous Miscellany: Amnesia

  1. The Black Curtain (1941) by Cornell Woolrich
  2. The Black Angel (1943) by Cornell Woolrich
  3. Fallen Angel (1952) by Walter Ericson (aka Howard Fast)
  4. The House of Dr Edwardes (1927) by Francis Beeding
  5. The Manchurian Candidate (1959) by Richard Condon
  6. The Ministry of Fear (1943) by Graham Greene
  7. Puzzle for Fiends (1946) by Patrick Quentin
  8. The Screaming Mimi (1959) by Fredric Brown
  9. Traitor’s Purse (1941) by Margery Allingham
  10.  ..?

***** ( 4 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Amnesia, Film Noir, Howard Fast, New York, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to FALLEN ANGEL / MIRAGE (1952) by Howard Fast

  1. Those are two solid reviews, Sergio! No kidding. In my own way, I have been amnesiac about Howard Fast until now. I have read only four books by Fast and all at a stretch, THE IMMIGRANTS, SECOND GENERATION and THE ESTABLISHMENT (connected as they were), and THE DINNER PARTY, which, if I recall correctly, tell the story of a family (or families). The last mentioned is, I think, about a dysfunctional family. This was in early 1990. Fast wrote well and his novels had the right pace to sustain interest and, yes, plenty of dialogue too.

    You mentioned Gore Vidal. I haven’t read too many of his books though WASHINGTON, D.C. which is about two political families James Burden Day and Sanford, and one man’s political ambition, the son Delacroix Sanford (I think), keeps coming back.

    It would be nice to go back and read some of their books. Thanks, Sergio!

    • Thanks for the kind words Prashant, as always. Fast seems to have largely fallen out of favour despite his fairly high level of productivity under his own name and as Cunningham. I can’t remember the last time I came across one of his titles in a bookshop to be honest. Vidal’s trio of thrillers as ‘Edgar Box’ are great fun but he wrote them in about 10 days and never took them seriously. I remember liking their vaguely insolent and insouciant tone though I must admit the plots are a bit of a blur!

  2. Colin says:

    I was unaware of the source of the movie Mirage until you pointed this out to me the other day. From your synopsis it’s clear that the film does stick very closely to the plot of the novel though. I need to go back and check out the movie again though; as I said, my initial impression was that the ending was a little disappointing.

    Interesting too that it was Dmytryk who directed a movie based on the writings of a blacklisted author. I remember commenting some time back, when I looked at his complex western Warlock, that the director’s past appeared to have an influence on the tone of his work. Is it too much to view his taking on of Mirage as some attempt to make up for his earlier actions?

    • Hi Colin – in terms of plot, character and dialogue, the adaptation is very close. The tone is different, much lighter in the film, which may be a good thing but probably tells you more about shifting tastes in the intervening years. If Ray Milland or Edmond O’Brien had played the role circa 1953 you can see how it would have been much darker, neurotic and angst-ridden, whereas by 1965 it has a breezier and glossier feel.

      I don’t think Dmytryk every admitted publicly to any doubts about his recantation though I agree that it would be a fascinating interpretation to look at MIRAGE as a story of a man who blanks out his past and is traumatised by this and is then hounded and pursued to give up information by the powers that be about that past. I think Dmytryk’s handling of the suspense and the complex interlocking flashbacks and the images a man falling and another going down a stairwell is very compelling and he deserves a lot of the credit. And it does have that genuine film noir look – along with Richard Brooks’ IN COLD BLOOD, I have always thought of this as one of the last great black and white movies made by the studio system (massive genralisation, I know).

  3. Mike Ripley says:

    I was always a fan of Howard Fast’s THE LAST FRONTIER (1948) which I think was the uncredited basis for the movie “Cheyenne Autumn” and I remember reading, as a pimply youth, several light and frothy E.V.Cunningham thrillers, all with girls’ names for titles. I even made a point of going to see the movie of PENELOPE in 1966, because I’d heard it starred Natalie Wood although I came away most impressed with a supporting actor I’d never heard of until then – Peter “Columbo” Falk.

    • Hello Mike, I’ve seen the movie Cheyenne Autumn but have not read the book – thanks for the tip! Penelope, now that takes me back – it may have been Falk’s first role as a detective playing, would you believe, a Lieutenant named ‘Horatio Bixbee’. Fast apparently reckoned that his dozen Cunningham books featuring ladies’ names were proto feminist thrillers … For anyone interested, the ultimate source of information on the man and his work online must be the exhaustive website available here: http://www.trussel.com/f_how.htm

  4. I’ve always been a fan of Howard Fast’s work. What a versatile writer! He wrote historical novels, thrillers, and movie screenplays. Thanks for the link!

  5. Mimi Fast says:

    Hello all,
    I’ve just found your website–a most pleasant discovery! By way of introduction, I am Mimi Fast, Howard Fast’s widow, and I know that he would be as delighted as I am to see your ongoing interest in his work. Please feel free to ask me anything about Howard’s work and I’ll happily answer to the best of my ability. With reference to “The Last Frontier” and “Cheyenne Autumn”, Howard and John Ford had long, heated conversations about this production which ended with Ford’s decision that the Cheyenne history was in the public domain, and that he could make the movie (and depict the “good” guys and “bad” guys) as he wished. So goes history!
    By the way, over 70 of Howard’s books are now available as ebooks through Amazon, B&N, etc.
    Also please see http://www.openroadmedia.com for videos and additional info on Howard Fast and his legacy.

  6. John says:

    Though I’ve not read the novel I enjoyed MIRAGE. Matthau is excellent. Peck and Baker work well together. But George Kennedy is the one I always remember when this movie comes up in movie talk. He turns in a very creepy performance as a sadistic thug. So differnt from what he ended up doing for the bulk of his career later in his life.

    How cool that Fast’s wife stopped by! One of the unexpected pleasures of blogging are surprises like that.

    • It was incredibly nice of her to comment here, wasn’t it? A real highlight for Fedora.

      You’re right about Kennedy and it hadn’t occurred to me as I just thought of it as a variant villain in the mode of Charade, which Mirage was partly made in emulation of (screenwriter Peter Stone complained that Peck kept asking for the kind of witty banter that Grant had in his earlier film, which of course was very hard to finesse given the very different styles these two great actors had). But you’re right, after a certain point Kennedy only rarely played outright baddies. That reminds me that I axctually read both of the mystery novels that Kennedy allegedly wrote and in which he appears as the detective – I remember when he made a guest appearance as himself on The Cosby Show they even joked about it. Apparently Walter J. Sheldon was the actual author who ghosted them for Kennedy … Amazing what’s in your head if you dig around long enough!

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  11. I’ve read a dozen or so books by Howard Fast under his own name and other pseudonyms. He’s a very underrated writer. I need to go back and watch the movie version of MIRAGE.

    • Hi George and thanks very much for that. I quite agree – and he was also so varied. I think the movie version really stands up and is pretty faithful too. The DVD is perfectly acceptable too.

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