Author: Daniel Polansky

2011, Doubleday

Filed under: Mystery, Fantasy

Low Town is a genre mashup the likes of which I’m not sure I’ve ever read before. It combines the world of a gritty fantasy novel—and its attendant medieval melee and magic—with the plot of a mystery novel. The hero of the novel (though “hero” is a loose description of him) is the Warden. It’s unclear exactly what that title means, but it’s certain that the Warden is the primary drug dealer in Low Town, the nickname for the slums of a large city in Polansky’s fantastical Thirteen Lands.

When the Warden stumbles upon the gruesome murder of a child, he gets drawn into a mystery that involves cruel nobles, twisted magicians, and his own dark past as both a scarred army hero and a disgraced detective.

On paper, this looks like an easy home run, but the reality is not quite as successful. It’s a bit of a mystery itself as to why it doesn’t work as well as it should: my complaints are relatively small, and Polansky is quite skilled at the things he does well. For one thing, the fantasy side of this novel draws a lot more water than the mystery does. Low Town (the place) is well-detailed and intricately imagined, down to its smallest details, like the tidy tidbit that an incompetent branch of the city’s law enforcement is ruefully nicknamed “the hoax.”

The mystery side of things isn’t quite as enjoyable, mostly because it’s too simple for my taste. I prefer a nuanced, multilayered mystery; Low Town offers something closer to an adventure, the plot points coming in the form of logistical problems rather than secrets or lies to uncover.

The Warden’s team includes an old army buddy and a savvy street kid who’s a natural thief—it’s unclear why either shows the Warden the loyalty they do, as he repeatedly rejects their help, often with vicious and unnecessary meanness. He prefers to soldier on alone, ostensibly to protect his friends, but it’s an unconvincing and ultimately much less fun way to do things.

Also problematic is the bone-thin plot, especially when Polansky makes the Warden do inscrutable things to fill pages because there are no more clues to chase down. In one scene, after the Warden’s ex-partner is killed, he finds a spot on a roof and drinks himself stupid while he watches the hoax work the scene. For hours. This is not even an act of grief, as the best the Warden can muster is mild annoyance at the man’s death. It’s just a scene that takes up words.

When the plot has some bends to take, Polansky’s talent for writing hints at how good this book could’ve been. The Warden’s way of working revolves around his mouth and his connections. He has an insolent, insulting way of mocking those he sees as harmful to Low Town, which include the police, the guard, and the federal agents investigating the child’s murder.

This is generally good stuff, especially when he lays into a righteous kill like a vile noble with depraved hobbies. And while the patois of Polansky’s dialogue takes a bit of getting used to, it makes for a sometimes fun (though sometimes grating) read.

The Warden has a habit of using his fists when his mouth doesn’t work, and the ensuing action scenes are some of the best in the novel.¬†Also, the end of the mystery is well done, even if the Warden seizes on a single suspect for far too long before the final turns.

Ultimately, though, the Warden’s unlikeable characterization soured me on this promising novel. I’m not usually one to complain about an unlikeable character. One of my favorite characters of all time is Parker, Richard Stark’s ruthless expert criminal. But even Parker knew when to accept help, and Parker’s best scenes were when he had to deal with other people.

Because, after all, that’s what novels are about: people dealing with people. A shame that this one didn’t strike gold, but I’ll be keeping an eye on Polansky in the future.

Similar books: Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith; The Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry; The Dresden Files series, by Jim Butcher