Set in the gritty underworld of 1932 Sydney, Australia, over the course of 24 hours, “Razorhurst” is a historical fantasy embedded in an era when guns are outlawed and gangsters fight their gruesome battles with straight-edge razors. Blood flows freely in the streets of Surry Hills as the precarious peace between two rival mob bosses begins to unravel.
The seventh novel by Hugo-nominated and Ditmar Award-winning YA author Justine Larbalestier, “Razorhurst” is both fast-paced thriller and noir but with a paranormal twist: The story’s heroines can see ghosts.
Kelpie is a street urchin, a girl raised almost entirely by the dead, for better or worse. For Kelpie, seeing ghosts is sometimes a blessing, like when deceased schoolteacher Miss Lee leads her to food and shelter; other times it’s just part of the background noise in a neighborhood so violent and crime-ridden that in many places the dead outnumber the living.
But sometimes seeing ghosts is a curse. They can’t always be trusted, and it is a mischievous one who serves as the story’s catalyst, leading Kelpie to the corpse of the right-hand man of one of the city’s top gangsters. Standing over dead Jimmy Palmer is his moll, Dymphna Campbell, blond and glamorous and notorious, widely dubbed the “Angel of Death” for her long string of dead beaus.
Kelpie knows that Dymphna is mob boss Gloriana Nelson’s “best girl,” her most-sought-after prostitute (or “chromo” in “Razorhurst’s” slang-heavy parlance). But what Kelpie doesn’t know is that Dymphna can also see ghosts.
In Larbalestier’s acknowledgments, she credits her obsession with film noir classics “Out of the Past” and the Rita Hayworth-starring “Gilda” as a major influence on “Razorhurst,” and indeed, the hard-boiled tale feels like a love letter to the femme fatale.
Dymphna hides her wiles and keen intellect behind a carefully manicured facade of charm and deference.
“She held a finger to her lips,” Larbalestier writes early in the novel, “curving them as charmingly as she could, meeting his eyes, willing him not to betray them, trying to slow her breath, the beating of her heart, all while the ghost of Jimmy Palmer begged her to stop ignoring him.... Much harder than not looking at him was not asking him what had happened.”
Dymphna and Kelpie — sought by the police as well as by Gloriana and her icy rival Mr. Davidson — find themselves toppling the fragile balance between the two ruthless mob bosses, leaving a trail of bodies (and ghosts) behind. And though Larbalestier’s depiction of violence is often graphic, it’s never gratuitous.
The girls encounter a cast of colorful characters along the way, including ambitious young writer Neal Darcy, Mr. Davidson’s mysterious and seemingly kind henchman Snowy Fullerton and deadly razorman Bluey Denham.
Larbalestier’s most compelling character isn’t a person or even a ghost but rather a place: her meticulous historical research (Larbalestier is a former academic) has led to a vivid depiction of Surry Hills, a real-life neighborhood that was so bloody in the 1920s and ‘30s it was dubbed Razorhurst by a Sydney tabloid. It’s a place and a period likely unfamiliar to most North American readers but richly realized in “Razorhurst” page by page, with each new landmark, memory or hiding place that Dymphna and Kelpie explore.
Expertly woven into the narrative are short vignettes that flesh out the history of certain places or people — a literary device that could feel clunky or forced in less adept hands but here serves to deepen the reader’s understanding of and attachment to the kaleidoscope of characters in Larbalestier’s masterfully constructed tale.
“Razorhurst” is more gory and, despite the youth of its protagonists, perhaps more adult in theme than many of its YA contemporaries. It is also better written and more lavishly imagined. And though “Razorhurst’s” too-neat ending might not haunt the reader, Larbalestier’s elaborate world is sure to linger.
Soho Teen: 320 pp., $18.99, 14 and older