“I already know some of the questions you want to ask. The answers are:
1) Yes, it’s pretty darn interesting being an angel.
2) No, I haven’t met God. Yet.
3) I can’t tell you which religion was right after all, because it’s not exactly clear.
4) As to what Heaven’s like…well, bear with me and I’ll try to explain.”
Bobby “Doloriel” Dollar is an earthbound angel whose job is to serve as a heavenly advocate for the souls of the departed—a public defender for the final judgment of the soul. Despite his respectable day job, he also asks himself the hard questions about heaven and hell, and is more likely to drink vodka in the event of a “spiritual emergency” than pray to the highest. As a low level angel, Bobby doesn’t know much more about God and Heaven than anyone else. He’s never met God, and he isn’t sure he can trust the Archangels and Principalities he reports to. Moreover, they aren’t sure they can trust him. When one of Bobby’s clients, a recently departed soul, goes missing before judgement, Bobby worries that if he doesn’t solve the mystery, he’s the one who will take the fall to prevent an inter-afterlife event between Heaven and Hell. To make matters even more complicated, someone has stolen a valuable object from a Grand Duke of Hell, and the word on the street is that Bobby has it. Too bad he doesn’t even know what it is, let alone where to find it.
Casually and perhaps somewhat unreliably narrated in the first person, The Dirty Streets of Heaven blends noir detective fiction and urban fantasy. Bobby has a distinctive narrative voice, and the vocabulary emphasizes his dual nature; one moment he is talking like a heavenly advocate, the next he sounds painfully human. With one foot in both worlds, Bobby can see the grey areas that his Heaven-based superiors are unable to appreciate, getting him into a lot of sticky situations as a result. And if that doesn’t complicate matters enough, living in a “meat body” means he is subject to all of the emotions and temptations that make human life so interesting. There are very few human characters in this novel, but no shortage of humanity; Bobby forms friendships and romances with the other supernatural denizens of San Judas, and enjoys the earthly freedoms and privileges not available to him in Heaven.
Despite the focus on Heaven and Hell, The Dirty Streets of Heaven is by no means sanctimonious or moralizing. Tad Williams manages to engage with Christian lore without explicitly ruling out other ways of conceiving of the universe. Set in California, the system is, as one new angel comments “so…American,” but the reality is less than clear. The Countess of the Cold Hands doesn’t seem to have had a heavenly advocate at her damnation, and Bobby suggests that what constitutes a damnable offense has changed over time. While what we see in San Judas is decidedly from the Christian tradition, a great deal is left open for interpretation or for exploration in the next two books in the planned trilogy. The potentially heavy subject matter is seasoned with a healthy dose of humour, and the fast-paced, action-oriented plot allows little time for moral introspection.