Friday, 16 August 2013

Daniel Polansky: Tomorrow, the Killing

It's one thing to set out to write a series of noir detective stories set in a fantasy world. Something else again to kick off your second in the series with a bald faced lift straight out of the opening scene of The Big Sleep. It's not that it takes balls of steel to steal from Chandler, it's that it takes insane courage to leave yourself open to comparison with the master. Polansky doesn't come off well from the comparison, but he gets points just for getting out of it alive. For the rest, he runs with another oldie but goodie, Hammett's Red Harvest.

I'm not quite sure what Polansky is setting out to do with his Low Town sequence. I've complained for years about the way that all fantasy books come out in big lumps of save-the-world quest three books thick, so it feels wrong to grumble that someone is writing short books with no apparent bridging narrative between the episodes. I should just take them on their own terms and be grateful that someone's ripping up the conventions. But I've become so habituated to the norms of fantasy that I couldn't help feeling a little disoriented. Where was the vast evil stalking the world? I didn't think I'd miss it until I did.

As to what's going on; when you're bringing two genres together and reworking a couple of iconic plots from noir, you live and die on the strength of the writing and the characters. Polansky doesn't make it easy for himself; the aristocracy are self-seeking creeps, the proletariat are crims and losers, and the narrator is one of those guys who reminds you every few pages that he's a bastard, largely to get there ahead of you. These folks are not going to be good company unless the writing works. For the most part, the writing keeps the unlovely characters in play, which is no mean feat when your narrator is a crooked cop turned drug dealer, and still probably the least awful person on the page. They might be awful people, but they make sense as people. Polansky is good at villains, because he understands that every villain has an excuse. 

To give you a sense of how solid the character work is, there's a twist to the narrator's own tale. He's supposedly drawn into the hunt for the General's missing daughter because of his connection to the General's murdered son; but it seemed plain as a pikestaff from early on that Polansky was prepping for a third act reveal that the real engine for the whole narrative is the narrator's guilt over his own role in that murder. In less skilful hands, this would all have felt like a fumbled attempt at a killer twist; Polansky managed to make it feel more like an unreliable narrator making a bad job of lying to himself until he finally had to confront his own sins. That's good writing.

Still, it's not epic stuff. I read the first Low Town book a couple of years ago, and I had to rack my brains to remember what happened in it; I could remember the character and the character background, but I was half way through the second book before I remembered the main plot, which was all about the price of magic and the narrator's childhood mentor. This second book is about how running away to be a soldier bent him even further out of shape; both books have been driven by the "present-day" price of mistakes made long ago, as all the best noir requires. The puzzle is where he's going with this. Polansky's two great influences weren't going anywhere in particular with their detectives, but neither did they come from anywhere in particular. Philip Marlowe didn't have a back story to speak of (the closest he came is in The Long Goodbye) but Polanksy's Warden has damn nearly as much backstory as some kid in a hero's journey narrative. Even if I can't see the big save-the-world quest, I wonder if there's something coming down the tracks.

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