Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

a review by Nalini Haynes

Blurb from the publisher:

BOBBY DOLLAR ISN’T YOUR AVERAGE ANGEL.
Sure, he takes the occasional trip to Heaven, but his job as an advocate – arguing the fate of the recently deceased – keeps him pretty busy on Earth, and he’s more than happy to spend the rest of his time propping up the bar with his fellow immortals.

Until the day a soul goes missing, presumed stolen by ‘the other side’.

A new chapter in the war between heaven and hell is about to open. And Bobby is right in the middle of it, with only a desirable but deadly demon to aid him.

Dirty Streets has a Columbo-style voice in the form of Bobby Dollar.  The major plot-line is a whodunit: not so much whether the death was a murder or suicide, but who stole the soul.  Sub-plots include celestial politics that smack of factional and office politics, love or lust, and theft.  Even though the point of view of the narrative is carried solely by Bobby Dollar, the plot and sub-plots unfold pretty well, holding the reader’s attention while keeping one guessing.

I think Williams cheated a little with one of the sub-plots but not being the major plot-line it was okay.  There were a few continuity errors; [Spoiler] for example someone – either Chico or Sam – had their ribs broken in a fight, later it was Bobby, later still it can’t have been Bobby because he’s fine while other people are suffering.  A gun had two or three bullets, it was fired a couple of times at something doing more damage than it had previously, then it still had two or three bullets left.  [Spoiler ends]  In my opinion these issues are only going to be noticed by the really particular reader or a critic; the action combined with Dollar’s entertaining voice can easily carry you through without even noticing these finer details.

The one thing that really annoyed me was Foxy, a demon who was initially described as an Asian albino, with the emphasis on albino being the reason he was really creepy.  Williams said, ‘He did have something of the look of the Opposition [Hell], but that might just have been his skin condition.’   After Foxy’s initial introduction, every time he reappears his albino appearance is referenced but he was only referred to as Asian once more.  Foxy is also the only character in the novel who looks like an albino, so the message is clear: albinos are evil and crazy.  Using this trope reinforces highly destructive stereotypes alienating a portion of the disabled community.  This trope is so frequently used when albinos are represented at all in pop culture that albinos have a lobby group campaigning for more equal representation.  It seems to me that it’s no longer acceptable to point the finger at ethnic minorities in this way, so authors often use an even smaller minority of the population instead, while still focusing on appearance (estimates suggest 1 in 17,000 US and Australian citizens are albinos).

Even worse, Williams also differentiated Foxy’s eyes as ‘not the more commonly pink’; this is a factual error.  Human albinos do not have pink eyes, they usually have blue or violet eyes if they’re at the palest end of the albino spectrum.  The myth of human albino eyes being pink or red comes from animals who have pink or red eyes and from flash photography giving albinos red eyes.  The difference between albinos in flash photography red-eye and ‘normal’ people is that albinos have a condition called ‘transillumination of the iris’: in other words, light travels through the iris (coloured part of the eye) not just the pupil (black centre).  Thus when a flash photo is taken, light isn’t just reflected out through the pupil but also through the iris, making it look like an albino has red irises and – worse still – possibly making albinos look like their eyes are glowing.  Our culture is sufficiently sophisticated that we don’t call the exorcist when someone other than an albino has red-eye in flash photography and I hope that educating the masses will change attitudes towards albinos.  I am sure Tad Williams has not set out to be discriminatory or destructive towards albinos, but I’m equally convinced that he hasn’t thought through the issues.

Williams’ theology is fairly CS Lewis-like, with Heaven as a non-denominational entity that even takes atheists if they’re good enough people, whether the atheists like it or not 😉  Dirty Streets is part This Present Darkness, part Wings of Desire, and part Good Omens.  The conflict between Heaven and Hell reminds me of This Present Darkness; this is a conflict very similar to a human war, both hot and cold.  The theological and philosophical questioning by an angel is reminiscent of Wings of Desire, while the snark reminds me of Good Omens.

Overall I enjoyed Dirty Streets of Heaven due to its well-paced, engaging plot, characters and snarky, misfit voice of the protagonist.

Four stars. 

3 Comments

  1. I am not a giant UF fantasy, but I’ve liked Tad’s work for years. I’ve been very curious about Dirty Streets.

    As far as the albino thing, until you told me you were yourself, I would not have had a clue why that was a button for you. Now I know.

    1. If you like noir detective stories and don’t object to religion and taking the piss a bit with religion, then I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I did.

      I have more pigment and better eyesight than many albinos; there are shades. When I was growing up it was more obvious because my hair was fairer and my skin paler, I’ve become darker over the years. Makeup also helps. As a child, my life was a living hell at nearly every school I attended. My family was ashamed of me. When I was 7, Mum started saying, ‘We’re going on a family outing and you’re not coming because you’re not part of the family.’ Although many people knew about me, I was a secret from many of Mum’s friends. When I was 15, just before Mum moved house I met two lots of friends she’d known for several years who didn’t know she had an older child. (I’d been sent to live with Grandma for the previous four years.)

      Social justice has always been an issue for me: I remember Mum and a friend of hers discussing Germaine Greer when I was about 10 years old, talking about women having to work twice as hard as a man in a man’s world. I had already had it drummed into me that I am inferior, a lesser human being, so I resolved to work harder than other women. The only problem was, it didn’t work – my former employer, SA Health (the government department of health in South Australia) refused me disability access about a week before advertising my job. When I complained, there was an internal investigation that refused to acknowledge medical assessments; the investigator, a middle manager, instead said that HE was satisfied that I didn’t have a disability and didn’t need disability access. When I pursued this evidence of corruption and other gems like him choosing to omit key interviews from his investigation and changing what I’d said in my interview, his response was that it was up to him what was included, everything was at his discretion. (He’d previously promised me natural justice.) If I’d been Aboriginal or in a wheelchair my colleagues would have treated me far better than I was treated.

      There needs to be more positive representations of albinos in pop culture as protagonists, side kicks and incidental characters. If pop culture shows us being accepted without suspicion, then acceptance will begin to grow in the broader community.

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