It is 1988, at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Gregg Hartmann (Puppetman) is poised to take the presidential candidacy, if only he can defeat his main contender, the charismatic faith-healer Leo Barnett. Tachyon, Jack Braun (Goldenboy), Spector (Demise), Mackie Messer, and Sara Morgenstern all attempt to help or hinder his chances. Hartmann campaigns on a jokers’ civil rights platform, whereas Barnett aims to place wild carders into sanatoriums while medical science finds a cure for the virus.
Ace in the Hole was written in 1989. The third book in the second trilogy, it completes the arc begun with Aces Abroad and Down and Dirty. As usual in the Wild Cards world, the third book in each trilogy is the true mosaic novel; rather than chapters written by individual authors, the stories are woven together into one. Whereas the earlier mosaic novel (Jokers Wild) took place over a single day, with the hours of the day counted off, Ace in the Hole takes place over seven days. Each chapter is a single day, with the hourly time stamp provided.
Chapter One: Monday, July 18, 1988
We begin with a variety of characters making their way down to Atlanta. Spector (Demise) starts us off, contracted to perform a hit on Hartmann down at the convention. A book-long mystery begins when he thinks it’s Gimli paying for the hit. Gimli supposedly died in the last book, struck by the Typhoid Croyd wild card—nothing left behind but a skin. Mackie Messer appears next, as vile as ever, a hate-filled psychopath working the door at Jokers Wild, when not gophering for Hartmann. And when I say “gophering,” I mean murdering. In this case, he’s assigned to murder Digger Downs, before he makes his way to Atlanta.
In Ace in the Hole, we get to spend time with Jack Braun once again. Now involved in politics, he’s Hartmann’s lieutenant, schmoozing with superdelegates and securing votes. There’s just a bit of the Hollywood sleaze still attached to Goldenboy, but otherwise he quickly becomes a sympathetic character. Almost from the get-go we realize that Jack is only there because he is one of Hartmann’s puppets, forced to reconcile with Hiram Worchester. We see that he is hampered with guilt about the Four Aces, and that he still has flashbacks to past wars. Even his parliamentarian fracases come off as badass and dramatic.
Tachyon, with his surly nephew Blaise, is there to support Hartmann as well. At least Jack has the excuse of being a puppet, but Tachyon is free of any invisible strings. In his case, it’s willful blindness, even when George Steele (aka Polyakov) and Sara Morgenstern warn him about Hartmann. In a destabilizing twist, Blythe’s daughter Fleur van Rennsaeler is at the convention, firmly in the camp of Leo Barnett. She has a burning cold hate for wild carders, the Four Aces and her mother included.
Gregg Hartmann is another POV, with his monster inside, Puppetman. He’s disgusting as ever, tormenting his pregnant wife, having people murdered, and using the joker’s legitimate fight for civil rights as his path to the presidency. From the very beginning, however, we realize that Hartmann is fraying round the edges, losing control of Puppetman. Puppets like Jack and other political flunkies begin to break out of his hold; Hartmann finally discovers that someone with mind powers is able to block him from Puppetman, and that someone is…Gimli. For those of us who’ve been waiting since WC I for Hartmann to go down (hint: me, me, me!), it’s like Christmas all over again.
After being made one of Puppetman’s puppets and being emotionally and physically raped throughout WC IV, Sara Morgenstern vows to expose Hartmann. She writes up her story and research for The Washington Post. Unfortunately, she is embroiled in the election cycle drama when Barnett’s team reveals her previous “affair” with Hartman on the Stacked Deck junket. When all the fear and trauma catch up with her, she has a bit of a psychological breakdown; she’s (rightly) convinced that Hartman will have her killed.
Chapter Two: Tuesday, July 19, 1988
Completely lacking in self-awareness, Tachyon thinks on Jack Braun’s betrayal, then turns and betrays Sara in front of the media. He declares that she’s delusional and obsessed with the senator. Joker protests break out nearby and the media criticizes them. Hartmann’s unable to calm the protestors nor work his magic, due to his blocked connection with Puppetman.
Both assassins head down to Atlanta. The two are clearly contrasted, with Mackie unhinged and Spector fairly levelheaded. They both kill, but Mackie does so more indiscriminately, Spector with a certain cold logic. Walton Simons’ Spector arc is deadpan and filled with dry humor, especially when he meets an old high school friend who works for Hartmann. In Ace in the Hole, Spector really comes into his own. When not emotionally terrorized by the Astronomer, he’s a pretty rad character. (Except for, you know, the murdering.)
Jack Braun and Hartmann continue politicking on the floor of the Omni Convention Center, with Jesse Jackson making some great appearances. Leo Barnett seems to know better than to touch Hartmann (and thus become a puppet) and he is able to outmaneuver them over the Joker’s Rights plank.
Best protest sign in this chapter? “Nats are Rats.” (What’re your favorite protest signs in the book?)
Chapter Three: Wednesday, July 20, 1988
Tachyon flies up to New York to give a eulogy at Chrysalis’ funeral, where we find that Brennan has taken on the case to find Chrysalis’ murderer. The alien then returns to Atlanta just in time to begin creepy-stalking Fleur because she looks like Blythe.
Jack continues the political wheeling and dealing. I’ll be honest: I never thought I’d consider Jack’s parliamentarian shenanigans, food-logistics for campaigns, and backroom deals exciting. But really, Walter Jon Williams managed the impossible, making them all seem downright riveting in Jack’s arc.
Spector follows Hartmann to Piedmont Park, wearing, of all things, a tight black-and-white mime disguise; the black humor comes on strong when he engages in a mime-battle with another mime (and wins, of course). His actual assassination attempt on the presidential candidate fails. Mackie likewise makes a play at his target, Sara, but only manages to kill her friend Ricky. Hartmann cruelly manipulates Mackie’s twisted love and lust, then turns to tormenting the joker Peanut in what turns out to be another blocked attempt to feed Puppetman.
Chapter Four: Thursday, July 21, 1988
Puppetman starts taking control of Hartmann, but the pregnant Ellen continues to support him. Fleur turns the tables, seducing Tachyon, and the alien falls for it; he rejoices that he’s no longer impotent, has gross sex with her, but then seems surprised to realize that Fleur was tricking him. Sara turns to Jack Braun for protection, just before Mackie comes after her—this means we get to see Goldenboy in action against a chainsaw. Spector finally hangs out with his old friend Tony, but feels guilty that he’s only grabbing dinner with him in order to gain access to Tony’s boss, Hartmann. When Tony is hurt by some street punks, Spector rushes him off to the hospital.
Chapter Five: Friday, July 22, 1988
Puppetman pushes Ellen down the stairs and she loses the baby; with it, the Gimli figure dies. Suddenly Gregg has access to Puppetman’s powers again. Unfortunately for him, after Mackie’s assassination attempt, Tachyon finally believes Sara about Hartmann. It helps that my main man Jay Akroyd (Popinjay) arrives, carrying Hartmann’s infamous blood-stained jacket as proof. After bad-mind-melding with Puppetman, Tachyon puts his support behind Jesse Jackson in an attempt to neutralize Hartmann without revealing that he’s an ace (and thus condemning wild carders everywhere). Meanwhile, when she made a run for it, Sara left her papers behind in Jack’s rooms. They’re damaged, but enough is left for Jack to figure out there’s a secret ace operating behind the scenes; he thinks it’s a secret ace bent on assassinating Hartmann or that perhaps it’s one of the presidential candidates. He decides on Barnett. Goldenboy and Spector throw down when Spector gets close to the senator. Spector wins and stops his victim’s heart, but nevertheless Goldenboy survives.
Chapter Six: Saturday, July 23, 1988
Tachyon meets up with Sara, who has been hiding out in a motel. And surprise!—he has sex with her. The alien’s move against Hartmann was surprisingly effective and Hartmann responds with attempted blackmail: namely, he threatens to expose George Steele/Polyakov and Tach’s connection to the KGB. Tachyon refuses, but a desperate car chase ensues so that Popinjay can teleport Polyakov out of town where the Secret Service can’t find him. Later, when Tachyon is preparing to give a speech for Jesse Jackson, Mackie chops off his hand, leading the alien to be hospitalized during some crucial events…
Spector slowly recovers from the beating that Goldenboy gave him, while Jack recovers from his run-in with Demise. Now convinced that Barnett is the secret ace, he calls a meeting with the Reverend. It’s a stunning scene, with Barnett taking center stage as he slips into preacher mode. This is Barnett at his most compelling: a preacher born of a wild card world. He’s the counterpart to the Nur al-Allah, the Mayan Hero Twins, and all the other religious revolutionaries in Aces Abroad. Barnett tells of a prophetic dream he had:
I knew the rain cloud was Satan. I knew the blight was the wild card. And I threw myself down on my face. “Lord!” I prayed. “Lord, I am not strong enough. I am not worthy of this task.” And the Lord said, “I will give thee strength!.. I will make thy heart as steel! I will make thy tongue as sharp as a sword, and of thy breath a whirlwind!” And I knew I had to do as the Lord asked of me.” (337)
Jack practically gets chills. At a press conference, he calls Barnett out as a secret killer ace, but when his accusation falls flat, he knows he’s made a foolish mistake that may lose Hartmann the vote. Especially when Barnett’s subsequent blood test does not show the presence of the virus (which, what? Didn’t see that twist coming). Later, Jack runs across Josh Davidson, the Broadway actor, and realizes something that Tachyon completely missed earlier in the book: that Josh Davidson is actually the last of the Four Aces, the missing David Harstein, the Envoy!! David’s contempt for Jack is absolutely brutal, but Jack manages to convince him to use his pheromones to move the delegates against a Barnett nomination. David says, “I don’t do that sort of thing anymore. Maybe it should never have been done… What right have I got to replace a man’s opinion with mine? Is mine necessarily any better than his?” Poor Jack thinks he’s truly fighting the good fight again in his efforts to help Hartmann, and here he is getting the Envoy involved again. Except that Hartmann is the very evil that Jack should be fighting against.
Hartmann, now recognizing that Jesse Jackson is a real political threat, takes him as a puppet; Jackson agrees to be his vice president.
Chapter Seven: Sunday, July 24, 1988
In this final chapter, all the POVs converge at the Omni Convention Center, when the DNC nomination is to be announced. Sara, armed with a gun to kill Hartmann, comes with Steele/Polyakov. A newly one-armed Tachyon arrives with the help of the Envoy. Specter plans to kill Hartmann no matter what, while Mackie basks in Hartmann’s nearness. And poor Jack finally realizes the mistake he’s made, but knows he can do nothing about it without risking a backlash against wild carders the world over. Sara raises her gun, and one of the most action-packed, surprise-filled episodes from the entire series begins. Mackie starts sawing through people to get to Sara, causing all hell to break loose on the convention floor (and on live TV). Jack leaps over Walter Cronkite, through a glass window, and swings down to the floor to save Tachyon, who’s in the process of being trampled. There’s an epic battle between Carnifex and Mackie; ouch, poor Carnifex. The showdown between Puppetman and Demise is entirely unexpected, with Puppetman swallowing down the pain of Spector’s death…until Mackie decapitates Demise, only to discover that Demise’s eyes still have their killing power. A decapitated Demise is a regular Medusa, and now they’re both dead.
The twist here at the end is that Demise has actually killed Puppetman, leaving Hartmann without his ace. Tachyon, not knowing this, mind-controls Hartmann to act mentally unhinged in front of the cameras, thus losing him the nomination.
Chapter Eight: Monday, July 25, 1988
Blaise has gone missing, either kidnapped or off running who-knows-where with Popinjay. Tachyon confronts Hartmann, explaining to the ex-politician that all along there never was a “Puppetman.” Instead, “Puppetman” was a shadow personality that Hartmann created. Now that’s one of the biggest surprises of the series! Oh, and there was no magical Gimli ghost, either. When Hartmann goes to meet his wife, Ellen, whom he thinks will be the one thing he can salvage from the whole affair, he finds Sara Morgenstern with her. Sara has come to enlighten Hartmann’s last victim. Take that, you jerk! FINALLY!
Some General Thoughts
The Hotel: Part of the action occurs in the “immense and surreal lobby” (28) in the Marriot Marquis, whether it’s Peregrine fluttering down from the floors above or Flying Ace gliders zipping through. Con-going fans will feel right at home, flashing back to Dragon Cons past every time they read about something occurring in that most “sci-fi” of hotels. In fact, Jack’s storyline dramatically plays off the architectural space of the hotel; he even manages to fall from one of the upper stories onto a grand piano on the bottom floor.
Politicking in 1988: Ace in the Hole draws inspiration from the real 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. It took place at the Omni Convention Center, although with less bloodshed. The exposure of Hartmann’s extramarital affair with Morgenstern follows the revelation of Gary Hart’s extramarital affair during the real campaign season. Jesse Jackson plays an impressive role in the book, with some memorable run-ins with Hartmann, Tachyon, and others. His deal with Hartmann for the vice-presidency echoes the calls for Jackson to be Dukakis’ vice-presidential nominee during the real-life events. And Jackson’s fictional resignation speech in Ace in the Hole reflects the rhetorical brilliance of his actual speech in Atlanta, much admired in the years since.
Election fatigue: For those on either side of the aisle burnt out by the 2016 election and its ramifications, Ace in the Hole can be a somewhat difficult read. Although it plays off a moment 30 years in the past, the book reads as remarkably modern in many ways. In the book, the authors showed us Nazi flags carried by white supremacists, just across the street from disenfranchised liberal jokers and sign-waving Catholics. Jack, the WWII veteran, mutters in shock, “I saw a car full of Nazis outside. Nazis in uniforms” (32). The parallels with 2016’s election get even more eerie. Polyakov, the secret ex-spy from Russia, is also known as George Steele. He has damning information about one of the candidates being a dangerous secret ace and therefore unfit for office. The correspondence with Christopher Steele, the ex-spy with allegedly damning information about candidate Trump, is downright creepy. Meanwhile, candidate Leo Barnett is described as “fanning the flames of hatred and intolerance,” while nearby joker protests are met with police violence. KKK counter-demonstrators battle the joker protesters in the streets, with rumors flying that “the police were not arresting KKK members and had, in fact, let them through the barricades” (126). These details are disturbingly reminiscent of last year’s skirmishes in Charlottesville.
Time goes on: In 1988, Jack Braun struggles with an old-fashioned aversion to cuss words, the difficulties of being an old man in a perpetually 22-year-old body, and an inability to comprehend changes in music and fashion trends. In an exceptional moment, he compares himself to Dorian Gray, immortally young on the outside and wasted and degenerate on the inside. We’re reminded too of Tachyon’s age, as he contemplates his many lost loved ones: Angelface, Blythe, Desmond, Chrysalis, and so on. He cries, “everyone always leaves me. Everyone I love leaves me.” (100) Those two may be forever young, but David Harstein is not. He’s an old man now, but he seems to be the only one of them to have lived his life to the fullest. He’s fallen in love and raised wonderful daughters and he seems perfectly content with time’s passage.
The Circle Closes: Joker’s Wild ended with Jetboy’s plane soaring above NYC once more. Sure, it may have been a parade float of the JB-1, with the Turtle inside, but in that moment, on the 40th anniversary of Wild Card Day, the trilogy brought us back to where it’d all started. Ace in the Hole does the same, moving toward a resolution that has been building in Goldenboy’s story arc the entire book long. It ends with Tachyon, David Harstein, and Jack Braun in an elevator, reconciled. In his hand, Jack holds a Flying Ace Glider that looks like Earl Sanderson. And even Fleur van Rennsaeler steps on with them, briefly. We end where Jack’s story began, with the Four Aces, and it looks like Goldenboy finally gets another chance.
Katie Rask is an assistant professor of archaeology and classics at Duquesne University. She’s excavated in Greece and Italy for over 15 years.