Wild Cards Volume 6 - ACE IN THE HOLE
After two volumes in the traditional Wild Cards format, this conclusion to the triad once again takes the form of a flowing 'mosaic' style with five creators helping to bring the Hartmann storyline to a close.
The novel takes place over seven days, from July 18th to July 25th 1988, as campaigners and supporters converge on Atlanta for the Democratic Convention to see who will be the next presidential candidate. The front-runners are Gregg Hartmann running on a 'Joker's Rights' platform and his main rival, the anti-Wild Card religious fanatic, Leo Barnett.
The main characters in this volume are:
Jack Braun, AKA Golden Boy (by Walter Jon Williams)
James Spector, AKA Demise (by Walton Simons)
Senator Gregg Hartmann (by Stephen Leigh)
Mackie Messer, AKA Mack the Knife (by Victor Milán)
Sara Morgenstern (by Victor Milán)
Dr. Tachyon (by Melinda M. Snodgrass)
Our old friend, James Spector sets things in motion early on Monday morning when he visits a warehouse in Jokertown and accepts a contract on a target at the Omni Convention Centre. On the plane, he unwittingly brushes against another player in the unfolding drama, Mackie Messer, who's also off to Atlanta to prove himself worthy in front of his new master.
Meanwhile, as the Hartmann camp reaches the final stages in its campaign, Gregg is finding that something is holding him back from his full potential, but realises the source of his problems when he hears from an old enemy who's close at hand. Meanwhile, Tachyon, who is lending his support to Hartmann whilst fighting a losing battle to teach his grandson the fundamentals of responsibility, gets some unwelcome news from an old comrade that there is a secret ace hidden amongst the candidates, and begins a journey to discover the truth behind the claims.
Washington Post reporter, Sara Morgenstern is also in town to not only cover the convention, but to expose this secret ace before he can do further harm, and it's not long before she's teaming up with Tachyon and an associate named George Steele in order to achieve her goal.
And with the ghosts of The Four Aces and Argentina ever-present in the background, Jack Braun is busy fighting the good fight for Hartmann's campaign team and discovering he has a gift for political maneuvering he never knew existed. Unfortunately, his political skills are less useful than his physical ones as the two killer aces get closer to their prospective targets with only himself standing in the way.
Against this backdrop, reunions with old friends take place, deals with enemies are made, and assassination plans are acted upon, as all the characters and plot strands converge on the podium in the main hall on Sunday night where the nominee for the next President of the United States will present himself to his adoring fans.
And so, as before, the trilogy ends on a high note with a great political thriller and a far more focused and tightly plotted storyline than the two previous instalments. It certainly helps that two of the more interesting characters in the Wild Cards universe take centre stage for this tale, although we do still get the usual Tachyon histrionics as well, which become a little tiresome after a while.
James Spector keeps the reader's sympathies swinging back and forth, as once his target is revealed, you sort of want him to succeed in his mission despite the cavalier way he goes around wasting anyone who gets on his wrong side. He even displays a certain humanity, of sorts, in his behaviour towards his old high school friend, Tony. Needless to say, the black humour is there in spades, most notably in the unforgettable scene at the park where he has to play a mime artist.
On the good guys' side, Jack Braun, 'the Golden Weenie' is continually haunted throughout this book by The Four Aces, but seems to have finally atoned for his sins by the book's end. In between, he also has two memorables run-ins with Spector and Mackie Messer, both of which involve him having to look death in the face.
Although he appeared briefly in Jokers Wild and Aces Abroad, Billy Ray (or Carnifex) is given a slightly larger role this time round as a government ace assigned to bodyguard duties. As a Wild Cards variation on Wolverine, he's portrayed as a fairly unsympathetic brawler with a mean streak in these early stories, although an extremely violent battle with one of the assassins in the book's finale can't fail to generate a certain amount of respect for his 'never say die' attitude. Fortunately, later books in the series will give his character a few more layers than the simple 'yes-sir-no-sir' government minion he's portrayed as here.
Although the story has a slow build up, this is not to the book's detriment - most political thrillers rely less on traditional action set-pieces to keeps things moving than on whispered conversations in isolated corridors anyway. At least this one has a high action quotient with the climax particularly suspenseful, as the assassins edge towards their victims in the great hall and the main players get to do their thing.
The alias that Spector uses to fly to Atlanta, George Kerby, is the name of the character played by Cary Grant in the 1937 film, Topper. In the movie, George and his wife, Marion, are ghosts who have to perform a good deed before being allowed into heaven.
Tony: 'We've got plenty to go over. I don't even know what you've been doing since high school.'
Spector: 'Fine. I've got plenty of time to kill while I'm down here.'
Tina: 'Mommy says we can watch a movie later. 'The Manchurian Candidate' is going to be on.'
Tony: 'Politics, mind control, and assassination. Not the kind of thing kids should be watching.'
Jay Ackroyd: 'How many of those Good Humor suits you own?'
Billy Ray: 'Six or eight. Why?'
Jay Ackroyd: 'Must be hell to get the bloodstains out.'
Jack Braun: 'Think twice before you start naming names. I didn't. I'm still paying for it.'