The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams
Tad Williams has been writing fantasy since the 1980s and has penned sixteen novels spread over seven series. He is probably most recognised for the critically acclaimed Shadowmarch tetralogy, a far-reaching and original story of a kingdom doomed by tradition that bucked the formulaic trend that genre writers can often fall into.
He’s attempting to do it again this year with a series that’s still very much part of the genre, but that has it’s layout and style taken straight from a classic crime noir novel. Think Raymond Chandler meets Patrick Rothfuss and you won’t be too wide of the mark.
The protagonist of this story is one Bobby Dollar, an unassuming, everyday guy that also happens to be an angel, named Doloriel. His human life is a front for his real line of work, that of an advocate – sort of like a lawyer for heaven – where he is called upon to argue for the salvation of the recently deceased. After a particularly fraught encounter with one of his hellish counterparts, he turns up to a new job to find that the soul of his ‘client’ has disappeared, and both sides seem to be hiding something about it. He decides to investigate, and so the intrigue begins.
The blending of two genres can be a dangerous undertaking; choose the wrong combination of elements to blend and you can end up with a real stinker of a story or a narrative that falls flat on it’s face. Crime noir lends itself wonderfully to tweaks though as it’s basic formula is simple, dramatic and punchy. It must be told in the first person, it must have limited settings and characters and it absolutely must have twists and turns as the detective puzzles out the culprit. The Dirty Streets of Heaven has all of this, and the choice of the author to give the novel a fantastical bent, adds rich and vivid meat to the bare bones of the noir style.
Bobby Dollar is every inch the sarcastic, self important maverick detective he should be, happy to pursue even his friends past the limit of patience and willing to take risks with his job (and his life) in his search for answers. He’s accompanied by a colourful supporting cast, and whilst the characters are a little clichéd (the faceless bureaucratic boss, the old war buddy best friend, and a love interest that practically screams Femme Fatale to name a few) they are welcome, and the refreshing and sometimes hilarious dialogue they engage in with Bobby means that they come off as more original than they might.
It’s an interesting theme to choose; that of heaven and hell, God and the devil. But then again the Bible is often touted as the greatest story ever told. If you feel a little put off about reading about a story based around a religious idea, don’t be. It’s a clever and subtle departure from the Christian interpretation of good and evil, and Williams has even thought to hang back a little on describing how the whole thing works by creating a kind of amnesia in the angels so that they can’t remember who they were when they were alive or even much of their experience of heaven, though we can surely expect more detail in future instalments. This is all deftly narrated by Bobby Dollar, who comes across as mostly agnostic, despite the fact that he’s an gel and serves God. To describe more would be to give it away, and we don’t want to spoil it for you.
The plot of the novel is similarly well crafted, and it makes for compulsive reading (expect some sleepless nights!) Because it’s noir it has blistering pace, but at four hundred or so pages it’s twice the length of a traditional pulp paperback, which is twice as much great fun to be had reading it. We wager you’ll be guessing who the perp is right to the bitter end too.
This book sets the stage for a great series to take off from, and it’s proven once again that Fantasy can be fast paced and original. Well done Tad Williams!
The Dirty Streets of Heaven is out now in hardback, RRP £18.99.