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Low Town by Daniel Polansky

Sometimes you pick up a book and, when you finish it, you have a sense of satisfaction that a new author in his first published book has not simply produced a good book. In fact, Low Town by Daniel Polansky (Doubleday, 2011) is a very good book. It bodes well for the future assuming, of course, he can be persuaded to keep on writing. In some senses, I suppose we should classify the book as being fantasy noir. As a benchmark, we can think of Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse, who, for twenty-five gold pieces a day, plus expenses, will act the part of an archetypal PI like Philip Marlowe in a fantasy setting. The problem with this kind of book is that it takes the original pulp model too literally. Yes, such books are a very good translation of the concept from crime to fantasy, but they simply recycle the clichés rather than reinvent the concept in a different setting.

In her introduction to the superior anthology, Supernatural Noir, Ellen Datlow emphasises the need to find the spirit of what made noir great in the hands of exponents like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and somehow recreate that. That’s why this book by Daniel Polansky is so good. Yes, we have a tough guy as our hero and he’s walking down the mean and dirty streets of some slum area where the poor and the fallen spend what’s left of their lives. But this is a fascinatingly rounded character that manages to capture all the things the best heroes have. He’s a loner but understands the need for friends and others he can either trust or make deals with. That makes him potentially very loyal. He hates authority, but is intelligent enough to know you can’t survive unless you can compromise with those who have power. He’s able to fight and is not afraid to kill but, if at all possible, he prefers to make his point without leaving too many bodies in his wake. Like the best of the American pulp heroes, he learned his trade as a soldier and, if a fight is unavoidable, he prefers not to die. That means he will ignore customs and conventions that might limit self-defence. He always goes into a fight intending to win. There used to be a girl before he went off to war but, no matter what the temptations, he’s put that behind him. Relationships would slow him down. Except, once when he was young, he rescued a waif from a fate worse than death and the same sentimental streak runs through him now.

Daniel Polansky not quite pulling off the heroic pose

So here we have a man who’s earned the nickname Warden in Low Town. He’s a one-man crime syndicate, earning his money as a dealer but also prepared to keep order in an area where the official law enforcers are loath to appear. When he left the army, he spent some time as an investigator. He was very good at his job but, as is always the case, his face didn’t quite fit and he left. The man in charge of the unit is dangerous to cross but, when interests overlap, there’s always the possibility of co-operation. It’s ironic that, by virtue of his criminal connections, he’s a more effective investigator in Low Town than the official police could be. When someone starts abducting and killing children, Warden is the one man most likely to be able to solve the case.

On the way, we meet the usual cast of fantasy characters. Our hero lives in an inn run by a long-time friend and his wife. This is a giant of a man who lost one eye in the war and, if he’s roused to anger, leaves broken bodies behind him. There’s the street-smart kid who’s just poking his head above the parapet to see the adult world in all its violent glory, the tetchy police officer who used to partner our hero and will still do the odd favour for him, and the corrupt police officer who just wants to see our hero dead. And, of course, since this is a fantasy novel, there must be a good magician who looks after Low Town with wards and spells to keep disease at bay. Working her way up through the ranks of magicians is the young girl our hero used to love. In the upmarket part of the city, the wealthy still play with swords and fight duels when they feel their honour has been besmirched. They are all familiar faces.

Put all this together and, despite the classic cast of characters, the setting of Low Town itself proves something of a triumph. It’s beautifully described. Better still, the flashbacks to times on the battlefield are engaging, particularly when we see how magic was used on a fairly massive scale to end a major campaign. All this fits together nicely to blend the supernatural and the mystery elements. Although I can’t say the solution to the mystery of who’s killing the children is all that surprising, the attempt to drag herrings of different shades of red across the page are pleasing enough. There’s such authorial enthusiasm all around that, in a sense, you stop caring and just go along with the flow. Low Town is a must-read for everyone who enjoys either the noir style or carefully crafted fantasy where magic works. Watch out for the name Daniel Polansky in the future. As a final note to avoid confusion, Low Town is the American title. The same book was published as The Straight Razor Cure in the British market.

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