Daniel Polansky writes dark, gritty, cross-genre noir heavy on fantasy.
He builds dark, different worlds, vivid characters, and great fight scenes.
Born in Baltimore he holds a BA in philosophy from Dickinson College.
His novel ‘Low Town’ is out and attracting a lot of great reviews.
It’s also got a lot of foreign rights acquisitions.
He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about criminal shadows and dystopia.
Do you think the best detectives have strong criminal shadows?
In real life no, probably not — one hopes, at least, that the head of the homicide division has no non-work related experience with his subject. But it’s certainly proved to be an enduring conceit in fiction. Of course, it wasn’t there to begin with — there’s really none of that in early detective fiction. Dupin is an upright police inspector, Holmes is an upper crust Gentleman (albeit one addicted to cocaine, but that wasn’t illegal at that point).
Who are your literary influences?
In terms of just people I’ve loved, there are a lot. V.S. Naipaul, Thomas Wolfe, Shelby Foote, Hannah Arendt, John Keegan. In terms of more genre-oriented stuff, that Stephen King character seems to have had a pretty good run. I spent most of my early adolescence plowing through his stuff, so that really had an influence, at least in so far as I like to dress up in a clown outfit and murder people on the weekend (just kidding (as far as you know)). As far as The Straight Razor Cure goes though, my influences are pretty obvious — Dash Hammett (did people ever call him Dash, do you think? They should have) and Raymond Chandler are the two guys I cribbed most from.
To what extent do you think sexual pathology influences the kind of crimes people like to read about?
That’s a great question, and one I’ve thought about a lot actually. Even a cursory overview of the crime genre reveals an exceptionally high percentage of books dealing with the most horrific and disturbing sexual violence. Indeed, such acts play a curiously heavy role throughout popular entertainment — how many seasons has Law and Order Special Victims Unit been on? 10? 12? To judge by the Girl Who… books roughly 1/3 of Sweden is made up of Nazi Rapists, a fact which did not strike me as being entirely accurate during my last trip through Stockholm.
On some level sexual crimes are an easy short hand for ‘the villain is super super evil’ — taboo subject matter that makes a fairly standard detective story seem more exciting than maybe it really is. And given the increasingly explicit nature of society, a lot of things that 30 or 50 years ago would have been left implicit in the text are now outright narrated, often in quite thorough detail.
But for me it’s sometimes hard to dismiss the feeling that there is something prurient in our general cultural obsession with reading about/watching terrible things happen to women. But on the other hand, women themselves often make up a high percentage of the readership for these things. I dunno. Truthfully, I don’t have a good answer for you, other than that for some reason we seem to be pretty interested in books involving sexual violence.
I guess I’m sort of one to talk, [Spoiler alert, though not really since I think it’s on the back cover] the murder and implied molestation of a child plays a role in The Straight Razor Cure, though there’s not much in the way of description of it.
Tell us about ‘Low Town’.
Low Town is a gritty noir set in a dystopian fantasy setting. The protagonist is an ex-cop turned drug dealer, a real unsavory individual. He finds a murdered child one day and, in a bout of ill-considered self-righteousness, decides to hunt down the killer, embroiling himself in a web of conspiracy and black magic (the worst kind of web!)
It was originally called The Straight Razor Cure, but when I sold it to Doubleday my new Editor plopped a big bag of money on the table and told me they were gonna call it something different. Thus did my long journey to sell out begin. I’m mostly kidding.
I like Low Town. I think it’s a pretty good book, and I’m an absolutely unbiased source. Balanced as a scale.
Do you think we’re living in a dystopia and what does that notion represent to you?
You know, you caught me — I really used dystopia inaccurately there, which is actually a strong pet peeve of mine. I feel like my hypocrisy is really coming out during this interview.
The term dystopian gets thrown around a lot as a sort of ubiquitous term for evil — maybe it’s the modern update of the term ‘fascism’. Strictly speaking, a dystopia is a false utopia, a rigidly ordered police state in which the government uses repressive technology and social custom in order to limit the free will of its inhabitants. Used correctly then, my book is not set in a dystopia, though some of the qualities often associated with dystopia — the sense that life is a useless endeavor controlled by amoral superiors, that the exercise of free will is a self-destructive act — these are qualities that exist in the world of Low Town.
Back here in the real world I’m not living in a dystopia. I’m about to go take a nap on a beach. Dystopian fiction tends to assume a level of competence on the part of the government unmatched in reality. I find that the state, being run by human beings, is generally too incompetent to enforce the classical dystopian security apparatus.
What do you make of the rise of the E book and do you think traditional publishing is coping with it?
Personally, I am a strong believer in the absolute superiority of paper as a medium to convey text. More than a believer, a fanatic — I read a lot and I travel a lot, so it would make sense for me to avail myself of an e-reader but I just can’t pull the trigger. It’s a much less enjoyable experience for me, personally. I just never, ever, in my entire life, found myself reading a paperback and thinking — ‘there has to be a way to do this better.’
I love reading books and I love being surrounded by them. The recent demise of Borders has been for me, like a lot of people I think quite sad. I hope very much that there’s still a place for brick and mortar stores holding volumes of ink and paper, and not just because their survival is intimately tied with my own.
As far as the impact of e-books on the publishing business more broadly, it’s not an issue on which I have any particular insight.
Do you think Noir without sex is lacking something?
I would say that there is no noir without sex. Good noir is about sin, and thus about sex on some level. Sex is dangerous, sex leads to trouble. This is, after all, the genre that popularized the femme fatale. No one needs to ever have sex of course, but the whiff of it needs to be in the air.
In a certain way you can divide noir into two categories — narratives in which the protagonist succumbs to sexual temptation (which inevitably leads to tragedy) and ones in which the protagonist holds out. I am thinking particularly of the classic detective novels in the latter — Marlowe, the Continental Op and Lew Archer are monk-like in their dedication to abstinence. Though compare that to something like say, The Lady of Shanghai or Out of the Past, which basically teach you that women are frightening creatures, at once smarter and less moral than men, and you start to think maybe their asceticism might be warranted. Interestingly for a genre which is so obsessed with it in the abstract, the act itself rarely gets much play. Noir tends to focus more on its later ramifications, the shadows it leaves on people’s lives. It’s a conservative genre, fundamentally.
Do you think revenge is a popular theme because it shows ordinary men and women stepping outside the law?
For we modern folk, utterly constrained by the firm hand of law and the only slightly less firm hand of convention, the idea of just getting to fuck shit up according to one’s own internal morality is a powerful fantasy. Wrapped up in that of course is the idea that we might be strong enough to overthrow said shackles and not end up in the ER or in prison — you ask about ‘ordinary men and women’ in your question but of course the protagonists of revenge parables are never average in any sense, they’re superhuman. Like most fantasies it’s ultimately about power, the idea that you could impose your views with impunity upon folk richly deserving in comeuppance.
Of course revenge is a strong thread within the noir weave, in so far as noir tends to posit that society itself is corrupt or ill-functioning to the point that justice as provided by the appropriate authorities is nothing of the sort. The classic noir protagonist exists outside of the conventional mechanisms of his civilization, and that’s part of what we admire about him.
You’re given a large budget to direct a crime film. How would you make it different?
If it was a really huge budget (and I’m going to assume it is), I would use it to build a time machine, go back to 1971 and hire Michael Caine to be in my movie. Or Lee Marvin. Or Charles Bronson. People in movies have been getting progressively less interesting looking, which really is a critical component of crime films. Everyone’s so damn good looking, it’s absurd. If you were good looking you wouldn’t have entered the world of crime, you’d have become a model. But I digress.
I would give it to the Coen Brothers and say ‘boys, go at it.’
Truthfully, I really don’t have much of an answer for this one. I don’t know very much about movies in any meaningful sense, not to the point where I could intelligently discuss the subject. I barely know anything about books.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I am working on revisions for the sequel to Low Town, as yet unnamed. I’m also trying to do some plotting of the third book in the series. Can’t really divulge anything on either of them, except that they’re much better than the first book. I mean, the first book’s great, don’t get me wrong. But onwards and upwards, as they say.
Thank you Daniel for an insightful and entertaining interview.
Get hardcover, paperback, or Kindle editions of ‘Low Town’ (US & Canada – Doubleday) at Amazon.com and ‘The Straight Razor Cure’ (UK & Commonwealth – Hodder & Stoughton) at Amazon.co.uk. Find more online retailers for the US here and the UK here.
‘Low Town’ is available in German as ‘Der Herr der Unterstadt: Roman’ and translations are also forthcoming in French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Russian, Czech, Polish, Turkish, Portuguese (Brazil), and Croatian.