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The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky

The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky
Book Name: The Straight Razor Cure
Author: Daniel Polansky
Publisher(s): Hodder Paperbacks (UK) Doubleday (US)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Mystery
Release Date: May 24, 2012 (UK) August 16, 2011 (US)

Eloquence goes a long way towards making amends for selfish immorality, which is why the protagonist of Daniel Polansky’s The Straight Razor Cure makes the book enjoyable despite his general nature and a few irksome plot points.

Taking advantage of the cohesive nature of fantasy and detective-led crime novels The Straight Razor Cure drops us into Low Town, the “other side of the tracks” neighbourhood in the otherwise magnificent city of Rigus, where someone has decided to start snatching pauper children and leaving their remains out for detectives to find.

Our mysteriously unnamed protagonist, affectionately (if not originally) known as “the Warden”, may be the sort of hard-faced cynic regularly found roped into solving crime but, rather than working as an unwilling PI who has yet to find a less-distressing vocation, he unconventionally earns his crust drug dealing and engaging in occasional GBH-inducing activities.

When he finds the body of one of the missing children the Warden wants little to do with the situation beyond clearing his name from the suspect list, but is drawn back to the case by some well-timed guilt tripping. His uncharacteristic display of compassion, combined with a desire to prove that the keen investigating skills he employed during his time with the city police – before being unceremoniously stripped of his rank and thrown back into the gutter of Low Town – are still sharp, soon has him up to his bloodshot eyeballs in mauled bodies with little hope of finding the baddie doing the mauling. As he digs deeper, and terrifying creatures from the netherworld start getting involved, his motivations become more about self-preservation than a desire to do what’s right.

Although he doesn’t seem to have a name and is hopelessly addicted to drugs, the Warden is a great character, especially if you enjoy the grittier side of fantasy that we’re seeing so much of right now. Selfish, offensive and sometimes just plain cruel, Polansky’s main character tells it like it is with frequent witty social observations and a sizeable dollop of expletives.

Polansky gives his “hero” a voice that gracefully adapts to any given social situation, easily letting the reader believe in his intelligence and capability to rule whichever perch he happens to be sitting on – be it that of a middling soldier, a high level investigator or Low Town crime lord. His motivations are clear cut and are all the more convincing for the base selfishness that gives so much punch to his observational humour. Despite the first person narrative and his rather enjoyable tendency to run off at the mouth, the Warden manages to hang on to the dark secrets of his past that loom behind everything he does for the entire book, adding a cherry of intrigue to his drug-laced cake and giving the reader a reason to return to Low Town for the second instalment.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the supporting cast of The Straight Razor Cure. Afflicted with piles (ouch) of stereotypes, the Warden’s nearest and dearest, passing acquaintances, clients, enemies and ex-employers all face the same fate of servitude to the plot. It’s unfortunate that such an articulate protagonist has so few opportunities for compelling interaction (you can see why he would be jaded). I don’t think an overabundance of stereotypes necessarily dooms a book (they’re stereotypically popular for a reason after all) but in this case they induced a far more distracting problem within the text – the portrayal of race.

Low Town is populated by various immigrants that are essentially based on shallow observations of Chinese, Caribbean and Spanish cultures. These background characters co-habit the warrens of the grimy borough, ruling their own little empires and serving as additional plot points where necessary.

Race is a difficult subject to explore and even more difficult to explore well. When creating a fantasy world, no matter how far removed from reality, it is inevitable that a certain amount of subjective influence will leak in from the author’s own life and experience, but it seems lazy at best and potentially offensive at worst to take all the obvious elements from a culture, slap a different name on it and plonk it into another medieval English setting in an attempt to add some colour to a half-built world. The chilled out Caribbean families and Chinese restaurant-dwelling gangster-emperor did little for the story itself. Their pigeonholed presence drastically hacks at all the hard work that went into portraying the Warden as an intelligent lord of the slums when he, and everyone else of his intellect, assesses everyone they meet based on where they hail from.

It’s possible that some of this is done on purpose to highlight the typical perception that you have to be a short-tempered xenophobe to enrol in the police force, but that then raises the question (which the reader may well be pondering anyway) of why the “Ice” – the best and most terrifying criminal investigator organisation in the world – receives any respect at all when they behave like little more than brutes and thugs.

However, a good book is more than the sum of its parts and despite my personal objections I found The Straight Razor Cure experience to be largely enjoyable for the story and the character. The simple murder mystery is pleasantly complicated by some imaginative and occasionally frightening fantastical elements, which disguise the twists to leave the reader with a satisfying climax.


One Comment

  1. Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

    Great review of a great start to a great series. Also, I’m bad at adjectives. Anyway… I reviewed the second book for F-F here It is spoiler-free!

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