Angel with a gun: The first two Bobby Dollar novels by Tad Williams

Bobby Dollar is an angel, but not very angelic. He doesn’t wear a white robe and halo and live on a cloud. He lives in California, carries a gun, drinks too much, and likes muscle cars.

But he’s a real angel, a servant of the Lord, helping to send recently departed souls on to their final reward — or punishment.

I’ve known about the series for a couple of years, but a recent interview with the author piqued my interest. Williams described how he was influenced by the noir detective novels and movies of the mid-20th century, and also by spy novels of the Cold War. The Bobby Dollar novels envision the eons-long conflict between Heaven and Hell as a kind of Cold War, with the adversaries sniping at each other in a restrained fashion, trying to gain an advantage without setting off Armageddon (literally in the case of the Bobby Dollar novels). Bobby Dollar is a low-level operative with only an inkling of the big picture. Although he’s an angel, he’s never talked to God. He doesn’t know anybody who’s talked to God. He’s just trying to do a job, and (as in a Cold War spy novel), often seems to have more in common with adversaries on his own level than with the high command of his own side.

There’s also a strong noir influence to the Bobby Dollar novels. Bobby is quick with his fists, his gun, and a wisecrack. He’s more likely to hit the bottle than he is to pray.

And there’s a woman — or should I say a dame — Casimira, the Countess of Cold Hands, a demon who Bobby thinks is fundamentally good. As a reader, I’m not so sure.

Bobby is an Advocate, a kind of heavenly lawyer, and when one of his clients’ souls goes missing, Bobby sets out to solve a mystery that runs him afoul of the highest powers in Heaven and Hell. He uncovers a conspiracy to upend the heavenly order. That’s the action in the first book of the series, The Dirty Streets of Heaven.

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In Happy Hour in Hell, Bobby goes to Hell — literally — and gets a tour of the underworld, which exists on multiple levels, and contains whole cities of the damned and demons.

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The theology of the Bobby Dollar stories is a sort of generic Judeo-Christian religion. Bobby doesn’t know why, and he doesn’t know whether things are different elsewhere — whether there’s a Muslim afterlife, a Buddhist afterlife, and so on. Bobby is pretty sure the rules have loosened up since previous centuries, and he’s our only guide to the afterlife. Like I said, he’s a low-level operative, and doesn’t know anything about the big picture, and neither does anybody he knows.

And yet the books do tackle one of the biggest questions of theology: If there is a God, and He is good, how can he permit suffering? In particular, eternal suffering? On multiple occasions in the stories, we see characters who are punished out of proportion to their sins. We see characters who are people who have literally become monsters, but who seem driven by mental illness and without free will. Bobby’s visit to the woods of Hell where suicides are punished is particularly haunting — surely, even if suicide is a grave sin (and I’m inclined to the belief that it is), a just God would not torment the souls of suicides for all eternity?

Those are some pretty heavy questions. Did I mention the guns? And the wisecracks?

There’s a third book in the series, Sleeping Late on Judgment Day; it came out in September. There’s also a novella, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlepig.” I haven’t read either of those yet.

One final point of the series that I find nifty: The novels take place in San Judas, a fictional California city that seems to occupy the location of real-life San Jose. The tourists assume San Judas is named for the guy who betrayed Jesus, but it’s really named for Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. San Judas is an amalgam of the real-life San Francisco Bay area. Various real-life and made-up Bay Area landmarks are compressed in closer proximity, into a single city.

The effect makes San Judas resemble Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. That’s partly my opinion and partly according to various things I’ve read and heard on the Internet. I can’t remember where — but start with this author interview and this comment on the author’s message boards.

The Bobby Dollar books are fast, enjoyable, thoughtful adventures, with plenty of action, humor, creative world-building and gruesome horrors. Bobby seems like he’d be a fun guy to hang around with — at least until the shooting starts and the monsters come up from Hell.

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