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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 (erinhorakova@gmail.com) 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.



Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
2 comments on “The Straight Razor Cure/Low Town by Daniel Polansky”

Good review. I liked it more than you did - notably, for example, I thought (and still think) that the protagonist's failure to spot the obvious when it came to mystery-solving was a deliberate part of the story, and overall it had a verve and swagger that I enjoyed - but you make some sharp points about its haphazard characterisation and stereotyping.
I came away feeling that both the novel and the main character are more self-aware than you allow. The Warden's hard-bittenness seemed to me more a self-adopted defence mechanism, warped with time, than a genuine (and thus botched) attempt to portray him as some sort of grimdark antihero: he's all bluster about how he's so past caring, but he gets involved in the case pretty quickly for all that.
The haphazard worldbuilding - the apparent idea that since it's fantasy, it doesn't have to be consistent - didn't annoy me nearly as much here as it did in something like Paul Hoffman's The Left Hand of God, perhaps because Polansky is very obviously only showing us a snapshot of a one part of one city. So I had less of a problem with the disparity between the environment the Warden moves through and what we glimpse of a broader, less dysfunctional world beyond; that, to me, was a function of its marginality. I also was more charitable (too much, perhaps!) in my reading of the Kiren: I saw them as a representation of an immigrant community being forced into particular social roles and jobs to get by on the margins of their new home, and as I recall (it's been a while since I read it - nine or ten months - so my memory is hazy) there were more Kiren characters to balance out the ridiculous Yellow Peril crimelord. Also, I vaguely remember feeling that there were some textual suggestions that said crimelord was deliberately and consciously playing out a self-created OTT role to intimidate people like the Warden, but I don't have the book any more and I may just be filling in gaps with what I hoped to see.

Erin

I’m really excited to have someone engage with the review and leave a comment - that hasn't happened for any of my other reviews here, and it’s excellent to feel like there’s a conversation.
If his failure to spot the solution was deliberate, I do think that's more interesting, and definitely a potential of the narrative--but I don't really feel there were cues to support that? It's difficult to go into it in-depth without spoilering the comment thread to hell for people who care about that sort of thing (please don't read on if you do, anyone looking on, in case I accidentally say something you don't want to read!), but if he was in deep denial (resulting from an inability to reconcile fondness with fact--though I never palpably sensed his fondness here?) I'd have wanted to see some kind of emotional strain and break (distinct from his general high stress at those points in the story) as evidence mounts and when the culprit's identity becomes inescapably apparent.
Re: the not full-on grimdark, but self-aware 'acts tough, but actually has a soft center' Warden: I'd definitely agree that that's part of how the character's constructed (and perhaps I should have expressed that in the text), but for me that's not really better? The disaffected out-for-himself detective who fronts but, when pressed, can't resist a femme fatale (and then in the end she was evil and he has to ruefully give her up and return to the mean streets a little colder, etc.) is quite a worn detective-novel trope, and I don't know that this is a particularly good example of the breed, so much as yet another easy instantiation of it.
The setting's marginality is a fair point, and perhaps I overlooked it to an extent. If Low Town is where the civil infrastructure/sidewalk ends, though, and the larger picture is more complex, I think that portrayal might have been improved if our occasional dealings with richer areas of town highlighted not just the opulence of the nobles' lives, but also these sorts of shifts. You don't have to break into a paragraph about how mass transit works in the rest of the town, but noting/referring to that kind of thing would, I feel, help?
With this, Fallen Blade and similar texts, we’re dealing with impoverished characters living on the margins (and attendant settings), yet we spend a ton of time talking about brothels and very little time talking about pawn shops or people living detached from social support structures above grimy, barely-stocked little shops that don't see paying customers for days running. And one of these is the grimy-glam idea of what people writing and reading these books think marginal living/poverty is like, and one of these is a more authentic invocation of that experience--and it's not the one with the bajillion hos. It almost strikes me as a voyeuristic fetishization of rough-and-tumble urban poverty, in historical or urban fantasy Romantic Drifter flavors, and I'm kind of uncomfortable with that.
In the text the Crimelord is, as you say, suspected of playing up his role , but then he also enacts the Oriental circuitousness, deviousness and paranoia of his stock character, so I find it difficult to exonerate this character on those grounds. There aren't any other named, or even thoroughly described, Kirens (other than the pedophile rapist)--certainly there are no Kirens our protagonist is friends with or just has to interact with for Plot Reasons, save dear Fu Manchu, who’s pretty plot-unnecessary. If we're going to say they're an immigrant population struggling to get by and occupying the roles Rigus gives them, and that our protagonist isn't sufficiently connected to that community or brilliantly observant to note these things in his encounters with them, that makes sense. But I think the writing would have to be more deft than it is to establish these layers (Rigus's general opinion, the Warden's opinion, diverse actual Kirens) and the juxtapositions between them, as revealed to the reader through the Warden's encounters with the Kirens, in order for this content to work or be worth including. If those tensions and the failures of these 'Kirens' to map onto each other aren't evident, I do think it functions as a reiteration of Orientalist content rather than as a valid reckoning with historically-inspired racism. There are gestures towards this more sophisticated treatment, as there are in regards to the women in the text. I don't think the book was written at all maliciously in this regard, but I think unsteady execution and lack of forethought have made the text read as something it didn't want to be.

 

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