The greatest mystery any of us will ever experience is the afterlife. Who knows what really happens when we die? What’s out there waiting for us: Heaven, Hell, Limbo, Purgatory, Valhalla, absolute nothingness, the Great Recycling Bin in the Sky? Not even Bobby Dollar knows for sure, and he’s an angel. To be specific, Bobby Dollar is an earthbound angel, an advocate who lives among us when he’s not arguing on Heaven’s behalf for the souls of the deceased. He’s a tiny, flawed cog in an immense, unfathomable bureaucracy, and that’s just the way he likes it. He does his job, he gets to drive a fast car and enjoy Earthly experiences, and he gets to stick it to Hell every time he wins a case. It’s a system that works. That is, until the unprecedented happens, and a soul actually goes missing. Impossible?
You’d think so. But at least one soul has gone completely off the grid, leaving behind a Heavenly Host’s worth of questions, and poor Bobby stuck right there at ground zero with no answers. Worse, one of Hell’s prosecutors is killed in the same location, suggesting that who—or whatever’s—behind this has some serious mojo. In a preemptive attempt to gather information, Bobby seeks out the Countess of Cold Hands, an enigmatic, beautiful, all-too-dangerous agent of Hell who definitely knows more than she’s letting on. And, well, things get interesting.
Bobby’s quest to uncover the truth behind the dead demon and the missing souls (plural now) takes him even further into a bizarre conspiracy that threatens to spark an all-out war between Heaven and Hell. Bobby, wielding the semi-suicidal white knight foolhardiness of your typical hard-boiled hero, stops at nothing to learn the truth. Whether he’s defying a Duke of Hell, bucking orders from his own superiors, fraternizing with the enemy, running from assassins, going off the grid altogether, or learning just who he can and can’t trust, one thing’s clear: strange things are afoot, and the status quo between Heaven and Hell stands to be disrupted in a major way. What is the Third Way, and how will it change everything?
The Dirty Streets of Heaven is Tad Williams’ first crack at urban fantasy, the start of a new series, and he pretty much hits it out of the park on the first try. Sure, it’s got a lot of familiar elements in play; hard-boiled protagonists are a standard in urban fantasy, from the Dresden Files to Zoo City, Sandman Slim to Remy Chandler (who likewise combines noir with angels and demons). (Even your humble reviewer has dabbled in this trope, with his Nick St. Claus stories.) There’s a reason for that: urban fantasy and film noir just seem like such a perfect fit, you know? Bobby Dollar’s a stand-up example of how well it works, as he risks everything for justice, answers, and the cold charms of a dangerous woman.
However, Williams also throws in the fast-paced thriller/conspiracy angle of a good spy thriller, a la Jason Bourne, weaving mysteries and double-crosses, triple agents and plans within plans, into the mix. Finally, there’s the fascinating metaphysical aspect to the concept, as Williams explores the idea of the afterlife being represented by a vast bureaucracy.
Lest you think he’s buying into a “traditional” Judeo-Christian framework, Williams is quick to explain several things in the text. First, Bobby’s never met the being in charge, here called the Highest, and he doesn’t know anyone who has. Bobby just happens to be a tiny part of a huge organization which covers all of creation. Heck, his beat is one city in North America, if that. No way he’s ever going to meet the Highest, much less know that being’s true nature. It’s accepted that the Highest could be Allah or Brahma, Jade Emperor or Ahura Mazda. It’s suggested that, for all Bobby and his colleagues know, they’re only called angels because it’s what they understand, and maybe other belief systems have other ways of doing things within the same all-encompassing organization. In short, just because the narrator exists within a Christian framework doesn’t mean that it’s the only way things get done. It’s a fascinating compromise, and it works under the circumstances. Not only does it keep Williams from being locked into one specific system, thus avoiding the awkward “what if we’re all wrong, and it’s the Hare Krishnas who are right?” possibility, it gives him the leeway to expose Bobby to different, yet equally valid, cultures later on. This is in contrast to Thomas Sniegoski’s Remy Chandler stories, where the Heaven/Hell paradigm is pretty much the only game in town, an equally enjoyable series.
Part urban fantasy, part spy thriller, part hard-boiled adventure, The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a worthwhile and entertaining new addition to the genre, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Tad Williams takes us next time. He’s laid the groundwork for a continuing story of epic proportions, and past experience shows that he knows how to properly exploit that sort of thing. From his fictional-yet-suggestive setting of San Judas (a Californian city that’s somewhere between the one place and the other place, you know what I mean) to the sprawling complexity of the Celestial City, there’s all sorts of room for interesting things to happen. And I’m sure they will. With lots of questions and only a few answers, there’s story fuel for adventures yet to come. I just hope that when my time comes, I get someone as passionately dedicated as Bobby Dollar to argue my case.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf. He is the editor of the forthcoming Scheherazade’s Facade anthology.