In an urban, faux-London setting appropriated from Dickens via Pratchett, with extra grit from The Wire sprinkled on top, the Warden, a former street-kid, the semi-ward of a powerful sorcerer, a grunt soldier turned army lieutenant turned police inspector turned special forces agent turned renegade drug dealer and respected criminal force (and publican), uses his lackluster sarcastic quips, street fighting ability, ballistics training, convenient connections with mages, nobles, government employees, and law enforcement personnel, drug dealing skillz, knowledge of many languages, amaaaaazing detecting abilities, cultural awareness and superior tolerance of those different from him, and anachronistic modern worldview to consistently bungle solving a crime.
The children of Low Town, a part of the city of Rigus with (presumably) very low property values, are disappearing (and then reappearing, deader). The Warden is hard and jaded and doesn't care, until he does—a bit. Gang leaders, dueling fops, the secret service, and wizards are all murkily involved. The evidence suggests that someone is using the children for a dark purpose, but who, and why? How are these events connected to the terrible creatures the Warden witnessed being deployed during the Great War? What does any of this have to do with the creeping hints that the devastating plague he remembers from childhood has not been as thoroughly routed as people believe? The book's culmination forces the Warden to make a terrible choice between an innocent life and the future of Low Town.
Unfortunately, the author inadvertently gives the reader almost all the information about this crime she's ever going to get within the first fifty of 356 (a number I checked many, many times) pages. I don't think we're supposed to conclude that the Warden is a moron, or even necessarily that his personal issues prevented him from realizing the identity of the culprit. If this effect were intentional, the audience's painful awareness of the solution would contrast with the play of the constituent forces that render the protagonist unable to understand the very information he's desperately seeking. If The Straight Razor Cure harnessed these energies, it could play with the murder mystery genre in an interesting and fresh way.
The one thing The Straight Razor Cure, by Daniel Polansky, does not do is "play with the murder mystery genre in an interesting and fresh way."
All genre fiction breeds have a certain phylogenetic kinship: overlapping audiences and creators; somewhat similar marketing and packaging; often an emphasis on readable, captivating stories, worlds, and characters over the more nebulous goals of literary fiction. As with paranormal romance (the fusion of specfic and romance genres), mystery and specfic seem compatible and likely to get on well, as the marketability of writers like Alex Bledsoe and Glen Cook has demonstrated. Since The Straight Razor Cure, in its marketing and in its literary presentation, makes strong claims for dual citizenship, it should be evaluated on both fronts.
If we're to judge The Straight Razor Cure as a mystery, we have to interrogate how its supernatural components operate within the mystery genre's conventions. A book with both fantasy and mystery elements has to make ineffable magicks effable enough for a sturdy plot that depends upon the fantastic to cohere. The magic system needs to work, to be consistent, to be accountable to itself within the context of its world and to the reader. Without explaining the details of the book's conclusion, I can only say that the mechanisms by which the titular cure is to be effected are unclear. Magical or no, I as a reader have to grasp the networks of causality involved in a plot in order for those links and their consequences to mean anything to me. As far as the central mystery, I'm not sure why anything happens or works as it does, other than that the plot needs it to. For one thing, in the world as it's described, it's impossible to believe the villain's actions would not meet with at least covert government support, and, given the gravity of the threat, even with widespread acclaim (or at least with grudging public approval).
And what of the mystery itself? Despite the Warden's annoyingly overabundant talents, his survival and success are almost entirely due to circumstantial accidents and, at the climax, to unaccountable intuition. The solution is so neat and easy I'd class it as an accident. Vital information necessary for the climax is just given to the Warden, for reasons largely unrelated to his efforts over the past 200-odd pages. It's like someone in the background is making frantic "we're almost to the end of the novel, wrap it up!" gestures. Well done, reader, for enduring this pained clue-hunt complete with cartoonish menacing extras, unnecessary sidequests, and many a ho, your reward is: the answer. Handed to the protagonist. Pretty much literally.
When I move away from thinking about Straight Razor Cure as a mystery and consider it more broadly as a novel, graver problems come into focus. The book is populated by "Kiren" and "Islanders," ethnic groups who are definitely not Chinese and Jamaican people (they have different names, after all!) brought in to, respectively, kowtow to the Celestial Emperor and obsequiously flatter even as they threaten, and smoke "dreamvine" incessantly, "rhyme," have colorful mothers named "Ma Dukes" (p. 199) and say shit like "Ain't me man," "you hear true?" and "You bet your life on that, brother. Praise the Firstborn!" (p. 201).
In a more subtle book, these invented cultures might be suggestive of others, but in The Straight Razor Cure there are no invented cultures, there's simple equivalence between Polansky's races and familiar, offensive, and boring racial stereotypes. There should be more of a place for people of color in fantasy, rather than being relegated to Tolkien's strange foreign allies of the bad guys role in fantasy's insistent re-imaginings of a European past. And maybe this book's method, including non-whites in a cosmopolitan city, is a good way to do it. But I'm pretty sure that having the Islanders swan in as bit characters to serve up fried fish, drug connections, and Ebonic wisdom isn't really the way to do that. Jamaican this racist.
The book's inclusion in the detective fiction genre might go some way towards contextualizing its racism. After all, since at least Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Rider Haggard we've dealt with dialogues of colonialism in our detective and adventure fiction, to the point that "the Chinaman" is a mystery genre stock character. It's possible to invoke the stylistic conventions of Orientalism and portray characters' historical attitudes without uncritically furthering either—to both nod to and investigate the clichés. It's problematic for a writer working today, especially one in a relative position of privilege, to use the tropes of Orientalism in the unconsidered, pointless fashion Polansky does. Not only is Ling Chi the crime-lord, "the Death That Comes by a Thousand Cuts," from his Chinese-restaurant interior decor and saccharine-sly patter down to the "the artificial tips of his elongated nails" (p. 166), deeply cringe-worthy to read about, he's also completely unnecessary. His almost fetishized mannerisms, and even his whole role in the novel, could be cut without altering the surrounding text. Why include this content to have it do nothing, if it was necessary to include it at all? The novel becomes a reiteration of racist content rather than a savvy recognition or reworking of it.
It's not just ethnic minorities getting shafted—great violence is done to characterization all around. The Warden's pub is managed by his old, gruff army friend with a soft heart. The kitchen is manned by that friend's plump, deferential, but fiercely maternal wife. The sly hooker. The bitchy, woman in a man's world coroner. To have written a few stock characters may be regarded as a misfortune; to write a whole book populated by them looks like carelessness. A bit character, a guardsman, stops several times to say friendly things and make sure the protagonist knows that he just wants to get out of the city and buy a farm with a sweet little girl he knows back home. If you do not know simply from this description that this character will die to provoke emotion, you have probably never consumed entertainment before. From stock characters to more discrete borrowings: Polansky has cribbed Doctor Who, and not just in calling his nameless lead "the Warden" in Time Lord style and having a thief (real name immaterial) referred to as "the Doctor." The book owes a particular debt to Torchwood, and essentially recapitulates one of its stories' core dilemma. It's not a theme unique to the Who franchise, and Polansky could have come to it on his own, but given the time the book came out and the time that production aired, I don't think the fact that Straight Razor Cure reworks that content can be entirely coincidental.
If the book cribs classic Orientalism and is heavily reliant on stock characters, that's a testament to the degree to which it's an amalgam of influences, without the transformative energy or the capacity for interesting complication or play with the source texts that mark good fanfic. We open with a mention of the Great War, and the battlefields of Apres and Ives (p. 1). The "warm water port" in question is obviously Crimean (p. 234). However Rigus, the city of which Low Town is a part, feels distinctly like a Dickensian London fused with a grimdark Ankh-Morpork (which is itself modeled on the former). The city's medieval-esque squalor and its fundamentally disorganized to nonexistent civil infrastructure are severely at odds with the existence of a neat coroner's (Scryer's) office (p. 155) and defaulting national loans (p. 222).
Polansky likes history for its juicy bits, and so he's thrown anything cool and potentially useful in, resulting in a society that makes no sense. Medieval, Renaissance, Edwardian, and modern components are treated as independent pieces of set dressing rather than instrumental components of a society. Societies can develop in ways we might consider "uneven" for a variety of reasons, but what's missing here is any hint of those reasons, or a firm sense of how the various anachronistic elements function together now. To say that no one ever developed public sanitation simply because of magic is not good enough. Fantasy and magic can't just make societies indolent and stupid—unless that's a point you're making, in which case you're probably wrong, but at least develop the argument.
The patchwork world's protagonist is similarly Frankensteinian. Laying aside that he wears so many hats he should start his own haberdasher's, his voice is incredibly inconsistent. While his wide-ranging life experience and the demands of different situations might well give the Warden his sometimes affected idiolect, even that can't quite justify the way he bounces between sounding like an analytical modern guy ("When I first signed up I was told we were dying to uphold the treaties with our comrades-in-arms—though what conceivable interest I had in insuring the territorial integrity of the aging Mirad Empire and their degenerate Priest-King, or of helping the Nestrians avenge the injuries the young Dren commonwealth had done them fifteen years prior, was beyond my understanding, then or now" (p. 233)), a hard-boiled detective/veteran ("We found him bled out when he didn’t show to reveille—so no more about the good old days. They weren't any fucking good" (p. 48)), and something more Olde Timey ("And truly may I say it is an honor to be allowed entrance to an affair of such elegance" (p. 107)).
The Warden's treatment of women is similarly confusing. He's happy to sneer at someone's sad and stupid misogyny one moment ("That was just the sort of jibe I could see making the rounds among the wits at Black House, misogynistic and unoriginal" (p. 154)) and happy to make excruciatingly crap jokes about whores on their periods (p. 223), the next. "Faggot" and gay jokes crop up in abundance (p. 226 and 264, for example). People are complex and internally contradictory, sure, but they also, like societies, develop with some degree of coherence. The Warden, while voicing way too many opinions and judgements on the disenfranchised groups he lives among to claim to be truly apathetic, doesn't seem to know what he feels and why about any of them.
Low Town is populated by a simply improbable number and variety of whores, with little evidence of the industry necessary to support them. To crown its problematic depiction of sexual issues, Straight Razor Cure even slides a character who was raped Evil under the door (p. 348). It's covertly implied that traumatic childhood sexual abuse has left the killer forever hobbled and empty inside. That emotional vacuum apparently made said character blasé about murder. Ah, rape as backstory—as lazy and, like our Not Chinese crime lord friend, poorly developed and unnecessary here as it is potentially hurtful to survivors.
For all this, the writing isn't entirely bereft of merit. Some strong sentences indicate Polansky has a deft feel for language, when he bothers to employ it. I quite like "He clicked his tongue in a fashion meant to be taken as sorrowful—it was grotesque and unnatural, like a she-wolf suckling her newborn" (p. 169). Except don't wolves always suckle their offspring, a very natural process? The simile doesn’t entirely function, but the sentence characterizes and evokes visceral disgust despite this small stumble.
The Straight Razor Cure's lead-lined prose is matched only by its paper-thin plot. The novel's worldbuilding, its depiction of women and minority characters, and its broader characterization could all have benefitted from a great deal more thought and judicious editing. The author may have talent, but it's not well-displayed here.
Erin Horáková (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.