The Dirty Streets of Heaven
Angels are not a subject in many fantasy novels I come across. They are rarely a presence in your traditional epic or quest fantasies and don’t frequently make the jump from the YA market to the adult market. As a side bar and somewhat oddly there are not one but two different Fallen series for the YA market starring angels one by Thomas E. Sniegowski (whose crime solving angel Remy Chandler has his own adult series) and the more recent series by Lauren Kate. Angels in fantasy fiction, particularly in the adult market, are almost always relegated to the urban fantasy area with Neil Gaiman (Murder Mysteries and Good Omens), Jim Butcher (if a bit tangentially), and the aforementioned Sniegowski, being some of the few to have penned angel-centric tales with a more contemporary feel. Now, Tad Williams (Otherworld; Shadowmarch; Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn) has penned and urban fantasy book starring an angel (actually more than one) named Bobby Dollar in The Dirty Streets of Heaven.
To give credit where credit is due the choice of titles for Williams’ novel goes a long way to properly calibrating your expectations, a process further along once you note that the protagonist is called Bobby Dollar (one of the most “hard-boiled” type names I’ve ever seen). This isn’t a novel about brooding creature of celestial grace (though there is a touch of brooding and some grace here and there) but a hard-boiled crime novel that just happens to feature angels at its core. Right at the outset of The Dirty Streets of Heaven Williams sets forth to create a very specific and very detailed world to populate his novel. From the outset he easily conveys the nature of the angel’s work on earth and the system by which angels and demons argue (in a way reminiscent to a court room drama) over the souls of the dead. Taking things a step further Williams describes a very specific hierarchy to his otherworldly protagonists (and antagonists) that plays an essential role in the crime that sets the novel rolling forward.
Bobby Dollar, aka Doloriel, is an advocate for the souls of the dead. He gets the skinny from the deceased guardian angel and argues against an advocate from the other side. Things are going along just fine for Bobby until one of his souls doesn’t turn up, then an advocate for the other side turns up dead (messily), there’s also the new trainee Advocate who asks a few too many questions, and the fact that a bunch of demons seem to want Bobby dead and his superiors don’t seem to be telling him the truth. Things don’t look too good for Bobby Dollar. The plot unfolds at an explosive pace and Bobby Dollar isn’t your typical angel with his wisecracking ways and serious love for the world vices Bobby is very much the typical hard-boiled hero in the vein of Phillip Marlowe. While some of the side characters feel a bit underdeveloped Williams’ sticks to the first person narrative and it’s Bobby’s vibrant personality that helps draw readers in; he may be a metaphysical creature crammed into a human body but he feels 100% human as a man who is dedicated to the job but trusts his bosses very little. In fact while many of Bobby’s friends and allies feel a bit thin Williams has a lot of fun in his descriptions of the appearances and personalities of Hell’s denizens.
The Dirty Streets of Heaven is short for a Tad Williams novel, finished up right up at the 400 page mark. Williams world-building is impeccable and his characterization of Bobby Dollar top-notch. The novel comes to a satisfying conclusion leaving plenty of room for future adventures. The Dirty Streets of Heaven proves that Tad Williams, a well respected if not an outright household name in the world of fantasy fiction, is a versatile writer who can easily shift to different styles of fantasy without ever missing a beat. I’ll be looking forward to more of Bobby Dollar in the future.