Devils & Details

Tad Williams is a terrific storyteller. I’ve enjoyed a couple of his fantasy novels, so when I saw The Dirty Streets of Heaven on the new-and-interesting table at the library, I checked it out.

I devoured it immediately. Reached the last page at midnight. It’s a good read. Plus, it’s apparently the first book in a planned series, so if you like fast-paced action adventure with a fantasy twist, you’ll like it.

And yet, as I reflect on the substance of the story I find myself oddly dissatisfied. I’ll save the spoilers for the second part of this little review and alert you when they’re about to start. If you just want to read a quick synopsis before deciding whether to go out and buy a copy, you’ll be safe reading the next few paragraphs.

The fantasy premise is hallowed, yet treated with a contemporary edge. Bobby Dollar is an angel. A real one, but he’s driving around California in a beat-up old car, and you’ll never see his wings. He’s an advocate angel, one of a number of entities so employed. When somebody dies, Bobby’s cell phone rings, and the home office sends him out to support the departed soul in its moment of Judgment. The other side sends out a demon, and there’s a quick trial before a judge. If Bobby presents a stronger case, the soul goes to Heaven (or perhaps to Purgatory). If the demon has a stronger case, the soul is cast into the eternal fiery pit of Hell.

Both Heaven and Hell are quite real. As I said, it’s a hallowed premise. But the story isn’t really about Bobby’s activities as an advocate — that’s just the setup. The plot problem is that souls have started disappearing before Judgment, and nobody knows where they’re going. The angel, the demon, and the judge show up at the bedside of the newly departed, and there’s no soul for them to see to the disposition of. Naturally, the angels think the demons are pulling a fast one and stealing the souls rather than take their chances in a fair trial. But it soon becomes clear that the demons are just as mystified as the angels. Something very strange is going on. And page by page it gets stranger. Important people (like, archangels) suspect that Bobby himself has something to do with the disappearances. A very large, very agile horned creature straight out of a Lovecraftian nightmare starts stalking him, determined to rip his head off and very nearly succeeding.

Of course, Bobby is an angel, so if the creature kills him he’ll be issued a new Earthly body. Even so, dying is extremely painful — and sometimes the resurrections don’t work. Early in the novel, one of the demons is tortured and then permanently killed, presumably by another demon, but we don’t know by whom or why. Permanent death is a real possibility, even if you’re theoretically immortal.

The story quickly ramps up into a fast-paced and effective hard-boiled detective thriller, with the added fillip that the wisecracking detective — Bobby Dollar — really is an ultimate Good Guy, and the mobsters he’s combatting aren’t just criminals, they’re much, much worse than that. Williams gives us car chases, hand-to-hand fights, and goons firing automatic weapons in addition to the monstrous Lovecraftian horror that can’t be stopped. Plus lots of wisecracks straight out of the hard-boiled tradition. And then, as if that isn’t enough, it starts looking like Heaven isn’t really on Bobby’s side. His supervisor (an archangel) starts lying to him, which startles him, because he didn’t know archangels could lie.

Oh, and there’s some incredibly hot sex with a lady demon. Of course — why wouldn’t there be? But first she tries to kill him with a sword. That’s demon foreplay for you.

It’s a terrific read, as I said. But after I finished, I started thinking back over the story, and there were a few things that just didn’t make sense. This is where the spoilers start. If you want to read the book yourself and be surprised, you’ll want to stop reading now.

The story sports a classic Hitchcockian McGuffin — an object that everybody is trying to get their hands on. People (or rather, demons) think Bobby has it, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t even know what it is, but the demons are trying to kill him in order to get it. Oddly enough, various humans do seem to know what it is. In one scene there’s a midnight auction in an abandoned building, set up by a colorful character who may or may not be human. Bobby agrees to the auction not because he has anything to sell but because he figures maybe somebody at the auction will tell him what it is he’s supposed to have. And of course somebody does, but only after demons with automatic weapons storm the auction and start spraying bullets around.

I’ll buy the idea that, through supernatural means, a crystal ball or whatever, various humans might know that this amazing object — okay, it’s a feather from an angel’s wing — is rattling around loose, though it’s odd that Bobby doesn’t have access to the same pipeline of information. What I don’t understand is why they would want the feather. It has no special power that Williams ever mentions, it’s just a collector’s item, yet the bidding goes up to close to a million dollars before the demons arrive and break up the party.

The feather has been stolen from a high-ranking demon, who, being disguised as a human business tycoon, had it stashed in the safe in his office. This very nasty demon tries several times to kill Bobby. In fact, he’s the one who both sent the Lovecraftian horror and is giving orders to the goons with the guns. And yet, the reason he has a feather from an angel’s wing is because he has entered into a secret deal with an angel. This secret deal is what has allowed the souls to start disappearing before they can be Judged, and their disappearance turns out to be a Good Thing. So the high-ranking demon has, for no reason we’re ever privy to, done a Good Thing, yet he’s still a nasty sonofabitch who wants Bobby Dollar dead so he can get his precious feather back.

This doesn’t quite hang together, once you stop to think about it. But worse, the big demon’s horrible hit squad is inept in the classic tradition of Hollywood bad guys: They almost kill Bobby half a dozen times or more — before, during, or after a fast-paced chase scene — but somehow they always miss him, and by the narrowest possible margin. Traceries of bullets from automatic weapons stitch across the floor inches from his face, kicking up splinters, and then he pops his head up past the railing, fires his revolver at a goon (he’s using silver bullets, by the way, which makes him either a vampire hunter or the Lone Ranger, but never mind that), and the goon keels over, screaming in pain.

Okay, Bobby is an angel, so maybe we can assume he’s just unusually lucky. But Williams never suggests for a moment (nor should he, as that would deflate the action) that Bobby has any supernatural luck on his side. No, he’s just a hard-working, wisecracking private eye who happens to be an angel. He’s lucky in exactly the way that Bruce Willis is lucky in all those action movies where he’s dodging bullets. It’s not fantasy, it’s just Hollywood.

And if you think I was aiming at that last sentence before it reached up and smacked me in the face, you’re giving me too much credit.

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