BOOK REVIEW: Low Town Book 1: The Straight Razor Cure

Fantasy Noir.  Genre blending fun with mixed results.

I’ll say off the bat that I really enjoyed this book.  It had an engaging protagonist (despite his ugly features and uglier job) a fine sense of gutter level life and, most importantly, it was Different.  If you think you’ve grown tired of fantasy novels, this is the kind of book that will make you think again.

The shackles of High Fantasy have been thrown off by many authors in the last decade, seeking a stronger sense of believability to the characters and worlds they create.  Devices such as magic and monsters are used far more to flavour their worlds than to be the point of them.  There is still very much a sense of experimentation of course, pushing the boundaries to see how far they can go.  What Polansky brings to the party with Low Town is a world that blends the character beats and sensibility of pulp detective fiction with the trappings of magic.

The detective in question here is The Warden, and in the grand old tradition of the genre he is a Romantic masquerading as a Cynic.  Battered by a long life of conflict, broken by bad decisions and worse company, he has become the lowest form of life – a drug dealer.  Low town is his domain and he defends his patch fiercely.  There is a great sense of routine here: a life lived, with webs of connections, pasts poured over, regrets drowned with drink and (briefly) obliterated with chemicals.  It’s a world brooding on the past, perfect for the author’s noirish aspirations.

The status quo is shaken when he stumbles across the body of a child on his daily rounds.  It’s the start of a pattern of disappearances that shakes his community to the bones and – against his better judgement – Warden finds himself drawing on old skills and contacts to head an informal and increasingly dangerous investigation. Along the way he stirs up trouble through the underworld, the secret police and upwards through the sordid ranks of society to the cream and the scum above.  He will stop at nothing to uncover the truth and protect his people – racking up enemies and burning bridges like there’s no tomorrow.

I’ve always enjoyed detective stories in any medium and paradoxically the less I understand the plot the happier I am – secure in the knowledge that the writer will wrap everything up satisfactorily and the detective (being a smart man) will navigate the way at least three good steps ahead of me.  Now, I don’t know if I got ‘lucky’ or if it is an indication of a weakness in Polansky’s plotting, but I regret to say that I homed in on the villain from the moment they were introduced.  Worse, I found that my belief in their guilt was unshaken – frustratingly – for the whole of the rest of the book.  Damn it.  I want to feel clever, but part of the joy of this kind of story is to be made suddenly to feel stupid too.

Nevertheless, I found it a very readable book: well paced, full of character, action and events.  The past was well documented in some particularly vivid flashback scenes (delving into The Warden’s boyhood and WWI-esque wartime experiences) that informed both his character and the plot rather neatly.  If asked, I would generally say that I don’t like first-person narration.  It feels wrong.  The voice can become preachy or drone on a bit, and just who are they talking to anyway?  Well it works in detective fiction, and The Straight Razor Cure is no exception.  Warden’s voice is disarming, as his tendency to undermine his intentions with noble actions.  He”s his own worst enemy.  Classic stuff.

In terms of freshness and readibility I wanted to give it a 4/5, but if a dumb hack like me can unravel the grand plot waaay ahead of the detective I fear it slides to a

3/5

GS Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

You can hear me blather about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
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  1. BOOK REVIEW: Tomorrow, The Killing « - [...] you read his fantasy noir The Straight Razor Cure you’ll have a good idea what to expect from Daniel Polansky’s follow-up:…
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