Daniel Polansky – The Straight Razor Cure

Welcome to Low Town

Here, the criminal is king. Here, people can disappear, and the lacklustre efforts of the guard ensure they are never found.

Warden is an ex-soldier who has seen the worst men have to offer; now a narcotics dealer with a rich, bloody past and a way of inviting danger. You’d struggle to find someone with a soul as dark and troubled as his.

But then a missing child, murdered and horribly mutilated, is discovered in an alley.

And then another.

With a mind as sharp as a blade and an old but powerful friend in the city, Warden’s the only man with a hope of finding the killer.

If the killer doesn’t find him first.

Daniel Polansky’s The Straight Razor Cure was one of the most buzzed about debuts of 2011, so when I received a review copy for its successor, Tomorrow the Killing, I was stoked and asked around whether I could read it standalone and someone offered to send me their copy of The Straight Razor Cure so I wouldn’t have to, I jumped at the chance. (Thanks again, Stefan!) The Straight Razor Cure definitely lived up to the buzz. It’s a strong debut on all fronts, characterisation, plot and prose.

The star of the show is Warden. He is a troubled soul, someone who has oscillated between the street and the law – and its supporters – for most of his life. He is not a nice guy, but he isn’t evil. He’s an unrepentant drug peddler, a thug and an addict. However, Polansky managed to get me invested in him after the first quarter of the book. He got me rooting for a drug dealer, something I never thought possible. I really enjoyed the flashes to pertinent parts of his past, which serve not just as a way to flesh out Warden’s character, but also are germane to the plot. Warden is joined by a host of interesting, if not always likeable, supporting characters, such as Adolphus, Adeline, The Crane, Celia, the Blade and Chi Ling. But my absolute favourite had to be Wren. He’s this sullen teen, distrustful of everyone as he’s made his own way as a street kid long enough to know what’s what, who slowly burrows into Warden’s affections. He looks up to Warden as a role model, something that is as endearing as it is worrying. Wren is both an insider – he’s Low Town born and bred and very much of the street – and an ingénue who serves as a sounding board for Warden and a way to express Warden’s cynical world view to the reader.

The Straight Razor Cure‘s plot is interesting. At heart this is a murder mystery and Polansky writes a mean one. My one complaint with the plot was that there was a twist at the end I’d seen coming from quite early on, even if I hadn’t been able to figure out how it fit into the story. What I did appreciate was the amount of conflict in the narrative, not just between Warden and his past – his youth, his time in the army and his time as an investigator for the Black House – but also in the fact that he gets roped back in by his former employers, against both their will and his own.

Polansky’s world building was strong. I adored Low Town and the diversity found therein. The different cultures were very interesting though the difference between some of the nationalities mentioned is not very clear. I did love the way different cultures were also differentiated in their language. This is especially clear in his interactions with the Kiren and Ling Chi. The very formal and rather circumspect way of speaking to one another says something about the Kiren as a whole—they’re seemingly a very hierarchical and patriarchal society. The structure and hierarchy of the police force was interesting as well, what with the clear distinction between the guards and the investigative branch. The way to two interacted sort of reminded me of how the relationship between the police and the FBI is often portrayed on TV shows—even if they’re on the same side, they can be quite adversarial and territorial. The idea of the scryers as a sort of magical forensic pathologist was very cool and I would have liked to have seen more of them, especially Marieke.

I really enjoyed Polansky’s prose as well. The book contained well-written dialogues which didn’t just reflect cultural influences, but class differences as well. When Warden speaks to the Blade, who’s a nobleman, he uses a different vocabulary and diction than when he talks to his fellow Low Towners. The narrative is also very descriptive, though never quite crossing the line of telling rather than showing. Through Polansky’s prose we get a good feel not just for the physical attributes of Low Town, the sights and smells, but also the atmosphere of the place. I’ve remarked before on how much of a sucker I am for the appearance of Dutch in my reading and there were some definite Dutch influences here, in names, such as Potgieter and Marieke, and in language, as apparently the Dren speak Dutch!

The Straight Razor Cure is as good as all the rave reviews made it sound. I really enjoyed this hard-hitting, dark crime story. And I’m really glad I get to start the second book Tomorrow the Killing immediately—in fact I’m well into it. If you haven’t yet taken a look at Daniel Polansky’s wonderful debut, I suggest you pick it and it successor up as soon as possible, as it’s a fantastic read.

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