Daniel Polansky: Low Town

Low Town sets up shop in the fantasy noir neighborhood established by Glen Cook with his Garrett, P.I. novels and developed further in recent years by Joe Abercrombie, Richard K. Morgan and the like. Grim, gritty and utterly devoid of poetry, elves and quests against hypothetical Dark Lords, Low Town is instead a straight-up transplant of noir sensibilities and tropes into a fantasy setting whose level of otherworldliness rises and falls as the plot demands.

The hero of the piece, the Warden, is a war-weary veteran and a disgraced former cop who lost his job on the city’s elite police force over a woman. He’s now reduced to running drugs in the worst slum in the city (and consuming so much of his own product it’s amazing he can stay vertical, much less dish out some of the physical punishment he bestows on various people throughout the narrative). But when small children start turning up murdered, the neighborhood gets up in arms and the Powers That Be get involved, with suitably messy consequences for all concerned. Naturally, the whole thing lands on the Warden’s doorstep, and, no matter how much he claims to be an amoral son of a bitch, it’s a foregone conclusion he’s going to ride in and save the day.

Most of the landscape, for all of the magical and feudal trappings, is familiar, albeit draped in a thin coating of brutalism. There’s the love interest of the hero’s younger years, the mysterious Chinese tong, err, heretic drug syndicate next door, the war-buddy sidekick, and so forth. Indeed, readers of noir are going to see the ending coming a long way off; Polansky doesn’t sell his red herrings well enough to distract, and then turns around and doesn’t give his ending the emotional heft its moral choice would seem to require.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book, and for a first novel, it’s impressive. The action set pieces are quite good, the wartime flashbacks are suitably creepy, and the plot moves along at a merry clip that reward the reader who’s willing to just strap in and go along for the ride. More discerning veterans of noir might find it a bit rough, but those just looking for an entertaining read could do a lot worse.

(Doubleday, 2011)

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