Friday, August 12, 2011
352 pp. Doubleday. $25.95
Pub. Date: 8/16/2011
The Straight Razor Cure (UK)
352pp. Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99
Pub Date: 8/18/2011
Reviewed by Paul Stotts
Publisher Blurb: Drug dealers, hustlers, brothels, dirty politics, corrupt cops . . . and sorcery. Welcome to Low Town.
In the forgotten back alleys and flophouses that lie in the shadows of Rigus, the finest city of the Thirteen Lands, you will find Low Town. It is an ugly place, and its champion is an ugly man. Disgraced intelligence agent. Forgotten war hero. Independent drug dealer. After a fall from grace five years ago, a man known as the Warden leads a life of crime, addicted to cheap violence and expensive drugs. Every day is a constant hustle to find new customers and protect his turf from low-life competition like Tancred the Harelip and Ling Chi, the enigmatic crime lord of the heathens.
The Warden’s life of drugged iniquity is shaken by his discovery of a murdered child down a dead-end street . . . setting him on a collision course with the life he left behind. As a former agent with Black House—the secret police—he knows better than anyone that murder in Low Town is an everyday thing, the kind of crime that doesn’t get investigated. To protect his home, he will take part in a dangerous game of deception between underworld bosses and the psychotic head of Black House, but the truth is far darker than he imagines. In Low Town, no one can be trusted.
Certain things go together. Like peanut butter and chocolate. Acne and virginity. Philosophy degrees and unemployment. Me and my wife (+10,000 bonus points for me)! But crime fiction and fantasy? Nonsense! Might as well put on the motley and play the jester for spouting such poppycock. Imagine if Frodo and Sam had pawned the Ring and bought a hobbit-sized pile of Ganga with the proceeds. Sauron would have conquered the world while these two high hobbits were still in the Shire, snacking on a plateful of Jeno's Pizza Rolls. So in what sick, twisted world do those two genres cross-pollinate?
In the sick, twisted world inhabited by Low Town (published in the UK as the more ominous-sounding The Straight Razor Cure), Daniel Polansky's assured and wonderfully stylistic debut. Low Town, the eponymous city that serves as the novel's backdrop, is a dystopian nightmare, filled with crime, death, drugs, poverty, and the plague. Residents don't live as much as they try not to die. The environment is harsh and brutal; it is the worse inner-city ghettos as re-imagined by Thomas Hobbes. While the problems in Low Town are exaggerated, it's correlation to our urban reality is clear.
Low Town is essentially a crime novel with minor fantasy elements. If you are expecting an epic fantasy, or even an urban fantasy, you'll likely be disappointed. The fantasy aspects of the novel are underplayed; they add color to the story, not substance. Magic exists in the world, but an explanation of how it works is rare, mainly because the narrative unfolds through the first person perspective of Warden, an ex-detective, who is currently a drug supplier, and generally ignorant of the mechanics behind magic. Crime is his life; he understands it, from both sides of the fence. He understands the dirty politics behind any investigation, the procedures and conflict. And these are what he passes along to the reader. Polansky's choice of writing from Warden's perspective is what defines Low Town as a crime novel.
The strength of Low Town is Polansky's writing; he infuses the work with a poetic wit that is engaging. Often, I would pause to enjoy a marvelously composed turn of phrase. Unlike the majority of crime fiction which uses language economically, Polansky delights in words, in using vocabulary in a way that is fresh and unique in the genre. What makes Low Town a wonderful reading experience is how beautifully composed it is. It's special. And that shines through on each page. People will refer to certain authors as wordsmiths; Polansky deserves that classification.
Polansky's skill as a writer livens up an otherwise straightforward crime story. If you've read a few crime novels, nothing in Low Town will surprise you. The minor characters for the most part are present to fulfill a purpose. In the case of Warden's young go-fer Wren, his purpose in the novel becomes obvious midway through the book. Polansky has created an interesting cast; I just wish they had been fleshed out more. These quibbles are faults that are generally endemic to the crime genre, but they are ones that may turn off a more casual reader.
Style often overcomes story for me, and Low Town is an example of this. Polansky is an extremely talented writer, one who will always be readable because of the unique voice he brings to his work. My two favorite genres are crime and fantasy, and I love the attempt here at mixing the two genres. But it isn't an equal partnership. If Polansky had embraced the fantasy elements more and added more depth to the world, Low Town would have been a singular reading experience. Overall, Low Town is a fantastic debut; it's not quite genre-busting, but Polansky is clearly on the right path.