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The Straight Razor Cure
Daniel Polansky
Hodder Paperback £7.99

review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

Crime and fantasy have a surprising amount in common, it seems. Both exist within a clearly defined moral framework, one which is remarkably conformist. Good trumps evil, for the most part; the rich and powerful are generally trumped by the poor and vulnerable. Lost and stolen objects are returned, unless the investigator determines they shouldn't be, the good are rescued and the bad are disposed of. Restoration and restitution are the hottest games in town. The investigator functions as a freelance moral arbiter, the argument being that he or she knows the streets, or the land, better than those nominally in charge of it and is therefore better placed to dispense justice appropriately and proportionately. In extreme cases, the investigator displaces the nominal judicial system altogether, in the cause of fairness. There is always a certain amount of room for leverage, too, with wrong becoming right if performed for the good of a higher cause.

If epic fantasy assumes that wholesale slaughter is acceptable for a supposedly just cause, then contemporary urban fantasy, hardboiled fantasy, call it what you will, focuses on the moral dilemmas of the individual, attempting to deal with wrong-doing at a more mundane level, though this often escalates into a much broader confrontation, usually with the establishment itself, perhaps manifested in the police force, or more shadowy intelligence agencies. And it doesn't actually matter how disreputable the protagonist is so long as he or she has somewhere about their person a moral compass that points straight and true towards 'good', usually hidden behind things being 'against my better judgement'.

This is the kind of world that Daniel Polansky offers the reader in The Straight Razor Cure (published in the USA as Low Town: in the UK, the novel comes labelled as 'A Low Town Novel', leaving no doubt whatsoever that it is intended to be the first in a series). Warden was once a city agent, a detective, in other words, but now he is a drug dealer, keeping an eye on Low Town, his patch, and doing business. Until, that is, he discovers the dead and horribly mutilated body of a young girl. When no one is particularly interested in solving the crime - the guardsmen and agents inevitably view Warden with suspicion and would pin the killing on him- Warden tracks down the perpetrator himself only to see justice meted out at the last by someone else. But then the disappearances and killings begin all over again, suggesting that Warden must be mistaken. The city gives him seven days to solve the crime before the agents come for him.

This is all familiar territory - Warden the ex-cop, faintly embittered, also an ex-soldier who maintains strong ties with Adolphus, a former comrade who now keeps an inn, and his wife, Adeline; they in turn keep an eye out for him and the street boy, Wren, who wants to work for Warden. Yet Warden also has a much deeper connection to the city, going back to his own time as a boy on the streets after plague hit the city; it is implicit in his name that he functions as a caretaker for those who cannot take care themselves, rather as a Low Town wizard, the Crane, once took care of him, and also banished plague from this area of the city. As a result, Warden clearly feels a moral obligation to do the right thing by the people of Low Town. This is by no means an uncommon motivation for a criminal - honour among thieves, after all - and the implication throughout is that Warden is who he is as much as anything because he despises authority rather than because he feels a particular vocation to be a drug dealer. He does the job efficiently because he does everything efficiently.

However, we are, I think, supposed to understand that Warden is a decent person who has been changed by his experiences. The precise nature of Warden's 'past', or at any rate, some of it, emerges in a series of flashback vignettes, scattered through the novel, positioned to conveniently supply background information when needed. Yet there is something oddly awkward about the way in which Polansky passes on the information. In part it might because it is against Warden's nature to be quite so forthcoming about himself, but I think it is mainly to do with the fact that the reader needs this information and there is no other way to make it available.

A third-person narrative would have overcome the problem more easily, as indeed would a multiple first-person viewpoint narrative but Polansky's choice of a classic lone protagonist has severely limited his opportunities for keeping the reader rather than Warden in the loop. This will become even more evident very late in the story when a subplot previously barely hinted at suddenly takes on the role of deus ex machina. This is a huge pity as if the story had been cast in a slightly different way I think Polansky would have got much closer to the effect I think he was aiming for, namely of bringing the desperation of life in Low Town much closer to the surface.

It's there, all the way through, in tiny little hints, so infinitesimally small at times one might all too easily miss them. It's not in the lavish descriptions of squalor - Polansky, like many before him, occasionally falls prey to the belief that the more you pile up the words, the more you dwell upon unacceptable hygiene practices, the more vividly a novel will stink, and it doesn't actually work like that. Nor is it in the violence, of which there is plenty, though it is often oddly clinical. Where the quotidian life in Low Town begins to surface most realistically, for example, in the response to the death of the first missing child, and the lavish civic funeral, a moment of spectacle intended to act catharsis for the Low Towners and stop them causing trouble, one has the sense that Polansky, like Warden, cares very deeply about the place. Indeed, the motivation behind the later killings has more to do with protecting the town from something much, much worse than it does with any pleasure to be derived from killing, although this is sadly left opaque for too much of the novel.

The question, then, is what next for Low Town and its inhabitants? Low Town seems to be an all-purpose setting, compiled from bits and bobs of history and geography, vaguely continental, maybe post-Waterloo, with a dash of Limehouse and a whiff of the Dickensian East-End about it. Whether this is intentional - Low Town as the city of the imagination - or accidental is hard to say. On the one hand, the place feels exceedingly generic, as one might expect from the first volume of a series, and yet I still have an odd feeling it might surprise the reader in a later story.

However, one surmises that Polansky doesn't quite have the confidence to step beyond the conventional narrative and attempt something rather more adventurous. This is, however, in many ways a very accomplished debut novel. Polansky writes well; if the plotting is not flawless and the descriptive writing is sometimes a little overworked, one nonetheless has the sense that he is a writer who is steadily gaining control of what he is doing. Were he to break free from the constraints of the hardboiled fantasy, one has the sense that he could produce something new and distinctive. As it is, The Straight Razor Cure is a pleasant enough novel, beautifully written but somehow just a little bland.

The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky

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