City of Lost Causes – ‘Dirty Streets of Heaven’ by Tad Williams

I was looking forward to taking this book to pieces, analysing it in depth and revealing its failings for all to see. Sadly, its torpid prose induced such a stupor I can’t remember much about it. Whilst the novel does rally towards the end, ‘Dirty Streets’ is lazy storytelling.

Where to start? I requested the book because its premise interested me. Bobby Dollar is a celestial advocate. An angel whose job it is to make sure that the recently deceased make it to heaven. When we die, lawyers from heaven and hell argue for our souls. During a hearing, a soul disappears, causing Bobby no end of problems. When a rival infernal advocate is brutally murdered, and an ancient Sumerian demon tries to shred Dollar into dime size pieces, he turns detective and attempts to head off a war between heaven and hell.

The novel is narrated in the first person in the mode of Philip Marlowe, i.e. a noir-thriller, wise-cracking detective. The problem is that Dollar is far from wise. The dialogue, though meant to be snappy, is more often clunky, and its pop-culture references dated. They read painfully like someone’s Dad trying to get down with the kids. Remember how you felt when you heard about David Cameron texting ‘LOL’, that’s how I felt reading many of Dollar’s witticisms. Adam Christopher also attempted the noir/Sci-fi crossover in his debut novel Empire State. Whilst the results were mixed, in comparison to Williams’ effort Christopher is Chandler reborn.

The story is virtually non-existent, mainly due to Williams sitting on the fence. His setting is half-baked. We have a vague outlining of what heaven might be like, and almost no idea how hell might work. I appreciate that the author doesn’t want to become bogged down in a philosophical discussion of what the afterlife might be like, but when in the opening few pages Dollar says that he can’t tell us much about heaven, because no one can really remember it, you can’t help but think Williams isn’t trying very hard.

We know that we’re supposed to be rooting for heaven, because that’s what contemporary theology tells us, but other than the inherent goodness of God and Angels there seems little reason for us to do so. The Devils and Demons in the book are venal and nasty, or so Dollar tells us, but they are also two dimensional. The one exception to this is the love interest. The noir femme fatale is played by the Countess of Cold Hands, one of hell’s better looking emissaries. Her backstory is both interesting and moving, and shows what Williams could have produced if he’d set his mind to it. Unfortunately he spoils it by having her sleep with Dollar. It’s literature’s least surprising plot development since Eric Carle’s caterpillar made himself a cocoon. I don’t want to spoil what plot there is by revealing any of it, but when a major component of the story is based on Blairite political theory, you know it’s seriously flawed.

The last third of the novel is better than what came before. Williams can write compelling action scenes, and there are some tense stand-offs. Having said that, because Williams world building amounts to little more than celestial arm-waving, the afterlife power politics that are supposed to have driven Dollar’s predicament, feel arbitrary and carry little weight. There’s a small twist towards the end, but sadly, because of limited development of a secondary cast, there is little surprise about the reveal.

The elephant in this review is Sergei Lukyanenko’s ‘The Night Watch’ series. If you haven’t read these books, they are set in Moscow and pit the Night Watch (heavenly) against the Day Watch (hellish) The books are everything ‘Dirty Streets’ wants to be. They are both based on the same premise, and as a result Williams’ book feels like the American remake. As for many popular foreign films and TV series that are remade to be palatable to US audiences, much is lost in translation.

Lukyanenko shows that good and evil are not absolute, and can be a matter of perception and circumstance. With one notable exception, Williams characters are right (representing heaven) or wrong (hell). Lukyanenko’s novels are subtle allegories of the Cold War, painstakingly constructed. In ‘Dirty Streets’, Dollar simply says something along the lines of, ‘the battle between heaven and hell is like the Cold War. There is no finesse. This typifies the difference between the two, and the Russian version far outstrips its American reproduction.

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