Home > Books > The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

In the distant past, Anon and Trad were able to take their time, honing phrases until they were elevated to idioms by popular acclamation. The idiom most relevant to this book depends on a pun. Yes, even in the 18th century, people liked to play with the meanings of words. For our purposes, the magic word is “dull”. In physical terms, this refers to a surface we would expect to be polished, but it has lost its shine, or it’s a reference to the fact a liquid is opaque. In metaphorical terms, it’s anything that’s boring or unexciting. As you will by now realise, the idiom is “dull as ditchwater” and it applies with full force to The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams (DAW, 2012). For those of you who care about such things, this is the first in an intended series featuring the lead character who goes by the name of Bobby Dollar, an Angel actually named Doloriel. So, yes, we’re back in the land of the Christians and I’m obliged to remind readers that I’m a committed atheist so you can judge the extent to which my review is biased.

Now we’ve cleared the decks, here we go with the set-up. Bobby is one of the advocates. For those of you not up on the processing of the recently deceased, all the souls have to go through a judicial process to decide where they end up. That means both Heaven and Hell assign lawyer/advocates to argue the toss over whether you should get the fields of gold with optional manna or delicate flame-crisping around the edges for eternity. Not unnaturally, these partisan advocates need the inside dope pretty quickly, so every soul has a permanent guardian angel and devil who oversee the life and then give a quick precis to the advocates on death. That’s billions of postmortal workers kept in gainful employment by the big governments of Heaven and Hell, two for each soul while alive and two for the trial process. Then there are all the civil servants who have to allocate cases to the advocates and generally administer the system. And that’s before you get to all the celestial and hellish beings needed to run Heaven and Hell as laid down in the original design specifications and make sure that all the expected amenities are up to snuff.

Tad Williams with head and top lip laid bare

Now we have all that clear, this is a Christian meets a PI theme as Bobby Dollar gets embroiled in an investigation to find out why he’s suddenly on a hit list. I pause at this point to smile indulgently. Since angels are already dead, you might wonder why anyone should want to “kill” him. Well, to walk around on Earth, all postmortals have to occupy human bodies and these can be killed, a termination which sends the souls straight to their relevant HQs without passing Go and collecting the two-hundred dollars. It’s also relevant to mention that this killing of the host body is potentially painful and, if a little torture was to be involved, it could make the return to HQ long and excruciating, no matter which direction the soul was heading. It turns out there’s been a conspiracy between high-up members of Heaven and Hell and our hero gets caught up in the backwash. So, to get himself off the hook and avoid the death of his human host, Bobby has to crack the case, walking the mean streets until he gets the answers and sees justice done.

I suppose all this could have been quite interesting — the idea of corruption in Heaven is by no means original since angels have been falling from grace over the centuries with some degree of regularity — but the execution of this book is terminally dull. It’s rare for me to struggle to finish a book but, to be honest, I almost didn’t bother to finish this. The only thing that persuaded me to plough through the turgid prose was mild curiosity to see why the particular high-up angel had been tempted into this particular deal and just how far he/she/it would go to cover it up. Oh dear. My brain was only working with the same enthusiasm as a 5 watt light bulb. This is the first in a series. Of course we’re not going to find out who the senior conspirators are until the final book. Perhaps it may even turn out it’s actually God who’s upset by the current black-and-white system and wants to change it. I mean just look at how unfair it is. You can lead a life of average quality and then, through the luck of the draw on which advocates you’re allocated and the judge you get to hear your case, you could end up in purgatory for eternity. It would be much better if there was a via media, a middle way in which ordinary people could be sent to a quiet place to retire. Although it might lack the amenities of Heaven, it would not punish disproportionately for mild sins — an altogether fairer outcome on dying.

So The Dirty Streets of Heaven has a vaguely interesting premise and the way in which our hero disposes of the nasty beast sent to kill him is quite pleasing. Otherwise, don’t bother. I suspect even the most dedicated of Christians will be bored to tears by it all — assuming they don’t find it blasphemous, of course.

For a review of another book by Tad Williams, see Diary of a Dragon.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

  1. September 29, 2012 at 12:57 am

    I’m a Mormon, so depending on who you ask I may or may not be a Christian, but I enjoy “Christian Fantasy” the same way I enjoy science-fiction: it’s all speculative. That said, some do it better than others. Have you read To Reign In Hell, by Brust and Zelazney? One of the best takes on Paradise Lost I’ve ever seen. Then there is Inferno, by Pournelle and Niven, and of course Good Omens (Pratchett and Gaiman) must be mentioned.

    The problem is that angels are becoming the new vampires, but most writers steal their essential traits. Biblicaly, angels were akin to natural disasters–destroying cities, killing all first-born, etc–so terrifying in appearance that if they were delivering a message their first words were “Don’t be scared.” Mostly, modern writers are dumbing them down, even trivializing them in order to make them fit as protagonists.

    Strangely, the best take I’ve seen on angels recently has been on Supernatural; Castiel and his cohorts are literally superhuman–even inhabiting human hosts. Sam and Dean Winchester, who take on ghosts, vampires, witches, and even demons, don’t stand a chance against them without divine aid of their own. Bright side, Dean is no longer an atheist; now he’s just pissed at God.

    • September 29, 2012 at 1:46 am

      I’ve always loved books like The Davidson Affair by Stuart Jackman because they take an explicitly Christian theme and then subject it to reasonably objective assessment, e.g. by moving it through time and having a Roman TV crew go to make an investigative documentary on the alleged resurrection. Equally, I’m currently enjoying series like Matthew Hughes The Damned Busters and Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim because they don’t take themselves seriously. The thing wrong with this book is that it’s so damned humourless and caught up in boring detail. If it was half the length and intended to be fun, I could take it.

      You’re more generally correct about angels appearing either in avenging mode or as vigilantes. It’s all the fault of the Crow series and Ghost Rider which has fired up lazy writers to cast angels and demons as characters in essentially human dramas in the hope it will give the work greater emotional or moral heft. After the first few episodes, I haven’t bothered to watch Supernatural. It’s gone the way of Grimm and all the other rather silly series involving the use of supernatural or divine elements including the more straightforward but equally ghastly Touched by an Angel.

      • September 29, 2012 at 2:02 am

        Surprisingly, Supernatural takes the old-time Biblical approach with judgmental and smity angels; there is nothing New Age about them. However, they don’t appear until somewhere around season 3-4.

        And, yeah, I lasted through only two episodes of Grimm.

      • September 29, 2012 at 2:18 am

        Grimm is actually one of the brave failures because the production tries to take a more stylised, hyperreal approach. It’s just the way in which the police procedural collides with the supernatural produces instant crimes that can be solved in the 50 minutes allocated without any sense of the context.

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