Meg’s Review of Low Town by Daniel Polansky
Audiobook read by Rob Shapiro
Ever since Harry Dresden hit the scene, the term ‘fantasy noir’ has been bandied about with great abandon. Though the Dresden Files series has much in common with the genre made popular by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, each derivative wizard/vampire/werecougar detective that has followed has moved farther and farther from the source material. Sure, there is usually some violence, a thoroughly depraved setting, and plenty of treacherous dames. But these stories lack one key literary aspect: the main character is just too damn likable.
Low Town by Daniel Polansky finally bridged that gap, creating a character who is so unpleasant that when he does get the crap kicked out of him, the reader can yell with a gleeful, “About freaking time!”
Low Town is told from the point of view of The Warden, a cop-turned-violent-drug-dealer who spends the majority of the book high on Pixie’s Breath and Dreamvine. He lives in the titular part of town that appears to be some warped alternate universe version of London where demonic creatures of the void are summoned by corrupt sorcerers. And when one of these demons starts to kidnap and kill small children, The Warden gets involved against his will, delving deep into the darkest parts of the city.
The world building here was a double-edged sword. It was immersive in the same way Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is, with no hand-holding for the reader as the Warden slouches around the strange city throwing new terms and phrases about as though telling the story to a local. And while Polansky manages to pull it off most of the time, there were scenes when the world seemed to run away from him.
There were too many names, too many ethnicities and social classes, and too many subplots to keep them all straight. These hiccups happened often enough to be noticeable, but not often enough to detract from my overall delight over the book.
As a general rule, I turn off the deductive part of my mind while reading. I don’t want my brain to figure out the culprit before the narrative reaches the reveal. With Low Town, I had the bad guy figured out by about a quarter of the way through. Polansky was either heavy-handed with his clues, or the easy solution to the puzzle was presented on purpose. While I suspect the former, the insatiable curiosity I felt towards wanting to know why the person had done it also suggests the latter. Regardless, even this blip couldn’t tempt me to put the book down. One thing would have kept me going even through the most ridiculous, contrived plots:
The Warden is totally noir badass.
There were moments when I really felt as though I was listening to the sort of tale Hammett would have written had he been alive today. The Warden was such an insufferable smartass that at least 75% of his conversations leave him seriously wondering when the person he’s talking to is going to try to rip out his throat. He is quick to anger, in possession of an utterly foul mouth, and not afraid to kill in order to reach his goal. He is the ultimate anti-hero, completely repulsive in personality, and yet in possession of at least a minor moral compass that makes him a character to root after in the end–even if you’re also rooting for someone to punch out a few of his teeth along the way.
When telling the plot to a friend, she asked, “If it’s noir, then where’s the bad dame who just wants to sleep with the main character and then try to kill him?” I’ll admit, there was a strange lack of any sort of sex given the amount of drugs and violence. But there is an easy cure for that imbalance. Don’t read this book; listen to it. Rob Shapiro has the most delectable deep voice and gave the sort of performance that, to quote my roommate, “sort of just makes you want to start removing pieces of clothing.”
Low Town is by no means perfect, but it is an absolutely stellar debut for Polansky. I cannot wait for his next novel. I only hope it’s a sequel.