Thursday, 7 July 2011

Book Review | The Straight Razor Cure / Low Town by Daniel Polansky

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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. 


You go to Low Town to score, be it drink or drugs or a whore. You go to Low Town to buy an hour that'll last you a lifetime, in the company of a beautiful woman with pools of night where her eyes should be; for a few ochres, she can be yours. And providing you have the pocket for it, all comers are welcome to sup their troubles away at the Staggering Earl, or in any one of the innumerable other dens of iniquity dotted about Low Town.

Perhaps you're only looking for vials of pixie's breath to feed your habit, or twists of dreamvine to take the edge off a hard day's night. Well sure! Some shady-looking dealer will set you up - for a price. In "the boil on the ass of Rigus that is Low Town, stewing in all its fetid glory," (p.70) everything can be bought, and everything sold. You come to this squalid, impoverished district to score, but you stay at your peril.

Yet Low Town provides. Just as it has provided for a once-was war hero who lived with "mad abandon" (p.129) in the district in his youth. Now, all growed up and nowhere else to go, fallen from such grace as he could have be had as an agent of Black House, the Warden's swapped sides to provide for it in return. His years with the frost firmly behind him, these days he controls the flow of vices in and out from Low Town, and if he's not a bad man, exactly, he's also far from a good one. Then one day the Warden finds the body of a little girl - marked, molested, murdered - and he must decide, once and for all, where his allegiances truly lie.

So begins Daniel Polanski's dirty, filthy, brilliant debut. Indeed, so it continues.

The Straight Razor Cure, known rather less subversively as Low Town in the States, is a phenomenal first novel from a young American author with enough raw talent to make washed-up wretches of us all. It's not a perfect debut - some uneven pacing and the lack of a single, distinct voice blunts the impact of Polansky's noirish fantasy some - but near as damn it, and that's no mean feat.

Unnamed throughout the novel - not that, credit to him, the author makes a thing of this particular mystery - the Warden makes for a fine anti-hero: ugly and largely unvarnished, markedly older than the norm for such characters, capable of terrible things but cognizant of his moral decrepitude. However the Warden does not deserve the shitstorm he's swept up in after he takes ownership of the dead girl's unsolved murder, above and beyond the call of duty - for he has no duty, in truth, and only a little honour. Yet he does this one decent thing, and is made to pay dearly for it.

In such a way Polansky engenders in the reader sympathy for this dithering devil, and it is enough to see one through the hunt at the dark heart of The Straight Razor Cure; the hunt for justice, for a sadistic serial killer and latterly "something loose in Low Town that was spat out from the heart of the void." (p.67) A thing of awful beauty has come to town, you see, leaving the broken bodies of babes in its wake, and the question becomes: who called it here, and why?

Speaking of awful beauty, says the Warden of an ice-cold scryer at the beck and call of Black House, "She would never be called beautiful - there was too much bone where one hoped to find flesh - but she might have sneaked into handsome without the scowl that defaced her finish," (p.151) and I'd assert the very same sentiment of The Straight Razor Cure. Polansky's prose is direct in the mode of Joe Abercrombie, if substantially less terse, but by that same token it is not at all unattractive. To wit:

"Low Town had enjoyed the autumnal pathos, a moment of communal mourning amid the vibrant foliage, but with the mercury falling no one was in any great hurry to leave their houses just to pay sympathy to the family of a little black boy. And anyway, at the rate children were disappearing from Low Town the whole thing had lost its novelty." (pp.255-6)

There are moments of awkwardness here and there, sequences wherein Polansky seems unsure how to go about establishing this thing or that - when it is not the world that trips him up, it is descriptions of the physical characteristics of certain characters - but otherwise the author equips himself remarkably. I had much more fundamental complaints with Scott Lynch's debut, for instance; the same goes for Mark Charan Newton's... even The Blade Itself. With The Straight Razor Cure, Polansky steps straight up to the plate - and with such style!

Whose style that is, exactly, is as yet open to debate. I don't make a habit of making arbitrary comparisons, but add to the three authors already aforementioned in this review the likes of Joe Hill, Tim Lebbon, China Mieville and Jeff Vandermeer... I could go on, too. The Straight Razor Cure reminded me throughout of other - not necessarily better - books, recollecting Perdido Street Station in one marginal aspect as another brought thoughts of The Lies of Locke Lamora. All of which is to say: I don't know that Polansky has as yet come upon his own unique voice. Rather the author draws liberally from the canon of noirish fantasy, appropriating elements from a range of stand-out talents and conjoining them into something almost unrecognisable.

In that last, however, Polansky makes the vast majority of his influences his own. And in any case mine is a minor complaint. Otherwise, The Straight Razor Cure - Low Town to you yanks - seems a darkly sparkling specimen. When one considers that this thrilling murder mystery represents the author's very first flush, its sundry strengths come to far outweigh its fleeting weaknesses. Now that the worldbuilding is done, and the cast of untrustworthy characters established, I can only delight in imagining what Polansky means to do with them next.

The low-down on Low Town, then: it is practically masterful.


The Straight Razor Cure / Low Town
by Daniel Polansky

UK Publication: August 2011, Hodder
US Publication: August 2011, Del Rey

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1 comment:

  1. The author recently contacted me and said he was going to send me a copy in the mail. Your review is great, and really pumped me up to get my hands on it. I kind of always expect first-author books to have some minor hiccups in the flow of things, like you mentioned above. However, it looks like the whole compensates for any minor road bumps one might run into along the way. I'm really excited about this! Great review.