Hodder & Stoughton, h/b £18.99
Reviewed by Catherine Mann
Bobby Dollar is an angel advocate. He lives on earth in human body – albeit one in really good condition – and argues for the souls of the recently deceased to be sent to Heaven. When a soul goes missing and a demon is found violently murdered, both Heaven and Hell want answers. Without knowing how, Bobby finds himself at the centre of the mess and is hunted by a relentless, primordial monster. His search for answers only drags him deeper into trouble as he discovers enemies and conspiracy on both sides of the afterlife.
This supernatural noir has a main character who isn’t actually a PI, but who takes on the role of a typical investigator. He’s cynical, sarcastic, stubborn, and not quite smart enough to keep himself out of trouble. The story is written in first person point of view, with Bobby telling his tale directly to the reader. This means that there’s a lot of hindsight remarks, self-deprecation and Bobby’s own thoughts, which make it easy for the reader to connect with him. Bobby is frank about what’s happening and doesn’t hide much, meaning that even when questions are left unanswered the reader trusts the narrative voice. He also has a great collection of colourful similes to describe just how bad things are.
The story has a lot of classic noir traits: a cynical cast, a seedy underbelly, a naïve rookie, a dangerous-yet-lovely woman, deception from both enemies and superiors, and of course a mystery that only gets deeper as the investigator gets sucked further in. As well as familiar conventions there are plenty of original ideas here too. The structure of Heaven and Hell is pretty much as you would expect, though Williams provides his own take on the methods employed by those who work in the afterlife. The earthbound advocates who must live among humans are un-angelic, and proudly so. The informants Bobby uses and the glimpses of the local supernatural community are intriguing, though not explored that much in this first book. The plot is a familiar shape, with expected beats and twists, but the foreshadowing and suspense are handled well. The reader will probably guess more than Bobby (fictional characters are often slow on the uptake), but is still going to be surprised and learn something at the end.
The sense of place is very strong. The book is set in San Judas, a coastal city near San Francisco. I have never been to California, but I got a very strong feel for San Judas, so that by the end the city felt almost like an extra character. I’ve found that some US books can have a certain glossiness that makes the setting feel unreal, but this is not the case here. San Judas is portrayed in day and night, in good and bad neighbourhoods, with both its current identity and its history on display. This kind of attention to detail in the real world setting lends the book’s version of Heaven greater authenticity, and grounds the various supernatural plot elements in something close to reality.
There is one section of the book that really impressed me and means I have increased respect for the author. Without spoilers, there are two characters from the West Midlands, where I currently live. Far from the posh/cockney stereotypes of English people that I often see from the other side of the Atlantic, these were characters who sounded authentically local. They use real slang, despite the fact that most US (and many UK) readers won’t understand what ‘mardy’ means – I’ve lived here 8 years and only sort of know. The whole scene was brilliantly done and I applaud Tad Williams for it whole-heartedly, even if it was slightly surreal for me to read something so local in a book set in California.
The love story subplot felt rather unlikely – though inevitable – and even Bobby concedes that it wasn’t romantic. Though I’ve found this is fairly common in fiction, so maybe my romance standards don’t match with current writing trends. The philosophical and theological questions raised by the story are handled in Bobby’s frank manner, and largely unexplained, as the greater scheme of things in the hereafter is mostly a mystery to him too. A Christian afterlife model, including Purgatory, is used and seems to be the only option according to Bobby’s experience, though there are hints that the situation may be more complex.
The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a good read and an impressive urban fantasy that is steeped in noir and features various original ideas. The story is well written and the pace shifts nicely between action and investigation, Earth and the afterlife. It introduces a familiar type of character and takes a cynical view at a traditionally black and white situation. The conclusion promises future instalments that should open the concept up and introduce yet more originality and ambiguity. I’ll be awaiting the next book with interest.