Dirty Streets of Heaven
DAW Sept. 2012
Review by Carl Cheney
Bobby Dollar is an angel. Not like an angel, not angelic (decidedly not angelic!) but an actual angel sent by heaven to do God’s work on Earth. When someone dies, Bobby meets them and advocates for the now ex-person in his post-life judgment. There’s an opposing demon from hell prosecuting and a neutral judge supplied by heaven. It’s a lot like going to court but being judged for your whole life. The judge decides and the person goes to hell, heaven or sometimes purgatory. Bobby’s territory is San Judas, the region south of San Francisco and west of the San Francisco Bay. But saying this misrepresents the tone of the book badly—these are dirty streets. Think Sam Spade or film noir.
When confronted by a mystery, the cagy down-and-out detective consults informants, trades insults with the opposition, gets in people’s - or rather demons' - faces, cavorts with fallen females, has fights, gets beat up, and so on. Along the way he’s displeasing his superiors, his friends and the opposition. But all the way he exhibits panache and swagger.
This is a fun read. It’s a fantasy but set in a mythos familiar for those with an Old Testament background. Tad Williams concocts a delightfully refreshing universe view of the big questions confronting believers, disbelievers and agnostics. He answers some of these questions. Is there a heaven and hell? Yes. Is God real? Yes, but you have to be far above Bobby’s pay-grade to get anywhere close. Bobby’s never met anyone who’s met God. Other big questions get dodged or answered in hilarious ways. For example, working for heaven is a lot like working for a Fortune-100 company with heavy bureaucracy, accountability, standard procedures, executive privileges, snitches and so forth.
An angel occupies a sturdy body on earth and has to cope with normal earthly existence, i.e. eating, sleeping, vices, parking and so on. Though angels know they can survive the demise of their bodies, they are not spared the pain and trauma of the morbid event.
The plot, like the mysteries it descends from, has numerous twists, turns, surprises and colorful characters. The mystery at the core of the story is a grand puzzler, way outside the box.
Bobby turns out to be a lot like most of us, rationalizing his often unsupportable choices even while plunging into his next misadventure. He takes his chances often, hoping for the best but sometimes taking lumps. The story gathers plenty of momentum as the questions pile up. I’m delighted by The Dirty Streets of Heaven and I’m suddenly interested in reading more from Tad Williams. Next time I find a Bobby Dollar novel on the shelf, it’s a lead pipe cinch it’ll be coming home with me.