George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards: The Reread

Murder, Mystery, and Urban Fantasy Collide in Wild Cards VII: Dead Man’s Hand

Published in 1990, Dead Man’s Hand was a bit unusual for the Wild Card series at the time, written by only two authors from the consortium, rather than five or more. Originally part of Ace in the Hole (WC VI), this murder mystery in NYC was separated out and given its own volume. It therefore follows the mosaic format, and in some places it retells scenes from Ace in the Hole using a different character POV.

Dead Man’s Hand follows two main characters, Jay “Popinjay” Ackroyd and Daniel “Yeoman” Brennan, written by George RR Martin and John Jos. Miller respectively. It takes place in New York City, where the two men dedicate their time to solving Chrysalis’ murder. Chronologically, it covers the same period as Ace in the Hole and follows the same organization. Each chapter takes place over a single day, broken up into hours, with the book spanning Monday (July 18, 1988) to Monday (July 25, 1988).

Chapter 1: Monday, July 18, 1988

Jay Ackroyd wakes from his lifelong repeating nightmare and heads to the Crystal Palace, where he’s about to take on a job as bodyguard for an increasingly nervous Chrysalis. When he gets there, he finds her body instead; she’s been beaten to death in her office by someone of non-nat strength. An ace of spades lay near her hand, leading Popinjay and the police to think that she’s been murdered by the Ace of Spades Killer, Yeoman. We know otherwise, of course, because we immediately find Brennan out in the boonies, living with Jennifer (“Wraith”) and running a landscaping company. Over a year ago, he’d given up his double-life as the Yeoman. As soon as he hears about Chrysalis’ death, he grabs his bow—essentially choosing to investigate the murder over his life with Jennifer.

Meanwhile, Popinjay gets in on the investigation as well, visiting Captain Angela Ellis at the Jokertown police precinct (Fort Freak), getting a copy of the Ace of Spades Killer’s file from Sergeant Mole, and then gathering intel from Jube. As soon as Brennan arrives in the city, he too begins meeting with his contacts, including Father Squid and the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Misery. He and Jay keep missing each other as they both try to find Sasha, the Crystal Palace’s telepathic bartender. Jay has a run-in (i.e., sex) with Ezili and almost gets nabbed by Ti-Malice before learning Yeoman’s true name from Sasha. The chapter ends with Brennan getting involved with the Shadow Fists once again, particularly Lazy Dragon and Fadeout.

Chapter 2: Tuesday, July 19, 1988

Jay heads over to the office of Digger Downs (at Aces magazine), where Digger’s assistant Judy (“Crash”) gives him access to the extensive archival data that they’ve got stored about all the aces with super strength. He’s trying to determine which aces or jokers might have had the capability to murder Chrysalis. It also seems that Digger left the office in a fright upon hearing about her grisly death, so Jay decides that he needs to track the guy down. He discovers that the Digger’s apartment has been ransacked and his neighbors murdered by a chainsaw-wielding villain (Mackie). Meanwhile, Elmo’s been thrown in jail for the murder of Chrysalis (which he didn’t commit), and the prisoner fills Jay in on some of the secret things that went on at the Palace. We learn that Chrysalis was the one who sent Demise after Hartmann down in Atlanta (WC VI). At Chrysalis’ farce of a wake, we’re introduced to new faces and secrets from Jokertown, and find out what happens when estranged next-of-kin get to make funeral arrangements for joker children. Charles Dutton fumes at Chrysalis’ dad, “I came here to see Chrysalis one last time, to make my farewells. And what do I find? Some nat fantasy lying in a coffin, and a roomful of people forbidden to speak her name” (102). Dutton was Chrysalis’ business partner, helping her fund the Crystal Palace. He and Jay make a stop at one of my favorite Jokertown establishments, the Wild Card Dime Museum. My inner archaeologist gets a kick out of Jay’s statement, “Museums are like graveyards. Full of dead things. Dead things depress me” (109).

Brennan sneaks into the Crystal Palace to investigate the scene of his friend’s murder. There he encounters (and brawls with) the Oddity, a joker mentioned occasionally hitherto in the series who actually gets a more significant speaking role here. The archer then heads over to Squisher’s Basement in an effort to find Bludgeon, who’d been bragging that he did for Chrysalis; Brennan realizes that the sickly joker didn’t kill her, however. In an effort to gather further intel, he meets the Jokertown cop Maseryk (whom he knew in Vietnam), then follows up on the Shadow Fist end of things, discovering a chemist garden/lab where they’re cooking up a new drug. Brennan gets an unwanted drug cocktail from the chemist, Quinn the Eskimo, and ends up in a fever dream, hallucinating his lost lovers. Jennifer turns out to be real, though, and she’s literally walked through walls to save him. There’s been something of a lack of female characters up to this point in the book, so cheers to Wraith for saving the day! Turns out Brennan sped off to investigate the murder without giving Wraith the time to make a decision about helping him. She does want to aid him, though, and now they are a dynamic duo once again. The chapter ends with Jay and Brennan (and Wraith) finally meeting each other; they trade information and decide to work together to whittle down the list of suspects that Jay had compiled at Aces magazine.

Chapter 3: Wednesday, July 20, 1988

Jay and Brennan continue searching for clues before heading for Chrysalis’ funeral at noon. The funeral scene includes some overlap with Ace in the Hole, in which we see it from Tachyon’s viewpoint. Brennan also attends the reading of Chrysalis’ will (she’s left him a vintage ace of spades to leave on her murderer’s body), after which he follows the Oddity to the Dime Museum. By this point we’ve learned that the Oddity is three people (and their bodies) trapped together. With a little eavesdropping, Brennan is able to cross them off the list of suspects.

As part of his ongoing quest to find Digger, Jay investigates the subject of his last story for the magazine: a girl who shrinks farm animals down to doll size, and who has an entire farm in her apartment. There he finally encounters Digger Downs, all three inches of him, hiding in a doll house. Jay grabs him and takes off. The scenes with pocket-sized Digger are pretty wonderful; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids may have come out the previous year (1989), but the joys of tiny people using staplers as benches never get old. Digger spills the beans on Hartmann’s secret ace, and his own secret ability to literally sniff out aces. Jay now has much more to worry about.

Chapter 4: Thursday, July 21, 1988

Jay returns to the Dime Museum to examine the Syrian diorama, now that he knows to be on the lookout for Hartmann’s bloodstained jacket, which should be proof of his wild card virus. Dutton tells him it’s been destroyed, however (lies!). Looking for more details on Hartmann, Jay visits Kahina’s old rooming house to see if she left anything behind. He speaks with Stigmata, who stole her stuff; in an unexpected twist of fate, he turns out to have Hartmann’s jacket.

Brennan waits for Fadeout in an overgrown graveyard, but ends up being ambushed by an actual dragon, aka Lazy Dragon. Fadeout asks for Brennan’s help taking down Kien (Brennan’s archnemesis and leader of the Shadow Fists), and he intimates that Wyrm killed Chrysalis over the Shadow Fists’ new drug (named “Rapture”). Next, it’s back to Squisher’s to get intel, then a nap as Jennifer listens to a transmitter they’ve stuck on murder suspect Quasiman. Cool detail: the transmitter went quiet for 45 minutes when Quasiman traveled to one of his other dimensions. Brennan goes on the trail of Rapture, before letting Mazyrek know the details he’s uncovered about just how addictive and damaging Rapture is. Readers will note that its effects are remarkably similar to Ti-Malice addiction.

Chapter 5: Friday, July 22, 1988

Brennan receives an update from Fadeout, including our first clue about Doug Morkle, who’s a longshoreman. That’s been a mystery name on the list, with everyone wondering “who the hell is Doug Morkle?” Upon finding the suspect lifting crates without a forklift, it becomes clear that Doug is actually Durg from Takis. He may be an alien, but he has an “ace exemption” on his union paperwork and has crankily settled in to life on Earth. Having scratched him from the suspects list, Brennan and Wraith set out on Wyrm’s trail, tracking him down at a meeting with Sui Ma, Kien’s sister. In addition to the fun fact that Wyrm watches soap operas, the two discover that he also can be removed from the list—except Wyrm is pissed that he’s been embarrassed in front of Sui-Ma and arranges a trap for Brennan (but Brennan escapes, natch). Brennan then goes after the Jokertown cop Kant, addicted to Ti-Malice.

Popinjay decides to travel to Atlanta to follow up on some of the info he’s recently gathered and to investigate Carnifex as a murder suspect. Jay flies there with Digger in a cat carrier. Jay’s had to check the cat carrier, and of course it doesn’t make it on the correct flight. Jay spends the day trying to get to Hiram, and then when he does, attempts to convince him that Hartmann is a killer ace. They bring the bloody jacket to Tachyon to get it tested for Xenovirus Takis-A, it tests positive, and they must deal with the repercussions. At this point, Jay is convinced that Hartmann had Chrysalis killed. Tachyon uses his mind-powers to discover the nature of Hartmann’s ace and sees the Puppetman. He’s able to verify that Hartmann did not have Chrysalis killed.

Chapter 6: Saturday, July 23, 1988

Jay has his first hilarious run-in with Blaise, then helps Tachyon get Polyakov out of town, then witnesses the Takisian get his hand chopped off. Blaise waves his creepy flag in front of Jay in the hospital. Meanwhile, Jay discovers that Sascha is actually there in Atlanta, so he and Blaise go on an escapade trying to track him down. They end up cornered by Ezili’s crew and get captured.

Brennan trades Vietnam stories with Father Squid, who was in the Joker Brigade. The story of the Joker Brigade (a joker unit in Vietnam) was one of the topics that I most wanted to hear about after reading WC I, but it was very rarely mentioned in subsequent books. It’s nice to get a few details in this scene, even if it’s only from a brief conversation between the two Vietnam vets. Hearing that the Crystal Palace has some “downstairs neighbors” he doesn’t know about, Brennan returns to the club. He arrives only to discover that it’s been staked out by the cops; he’s arrested, but Wraith comes to rescue him again and ghosts him out of jail. After she begins to recover from the physical toll of ghosting another person, Brennan makes a second attempt on the tunnels below the Crystal Palace. There he discovers Chrysalis’ “eyes and ears,” small homunculi creatures that are the “children” of the joker Mother; the flesh blob Mother served as the living secret keeper for Chrsyalis. Mother also protects Chrysalis’ journal, but Brennan and the homunculi are surprised by Fadeout and Lazy Dragon, who’ve been tracking the archer in order to steal the knowledge housed in Chrysalis’ secret papers. They snatch the journal. A chase and brawl ensues, with Quasiman showing up to help Brennan. The Crystal Palace catches on fire and burns to the ground, trapping Brennan in the tunnels below.

Chapter 7: Sunday, July 24, 1988

Ti-Malice’s followers keep Jay drugged as they wait for their master. When the gumshoe realizes that Blaise is there but can’t effectively use mind-control, they hatch an escape plan that goes wrong for the teenager. It is then that Hiram arrives—not to rescue them as Jay first thinks, but to bring Ti-Malice to his new acquisitions. The monster leech takes over Blaise and begins grotesquely experimenting with the kid’s powers. Hiram refuses to help Blaise and Jay, though he and Sasha do convince Ti-Malice to keep Jay alive.

Brennan wakes up in the Jokertown Clinic, checks on Jennifer, then stalks after Fadeout again, via Quinn the Eskimo’s chemical garden. He’s able to hold Fadeout hostage in exchange for Chrysalis’ journal, only to discover that it was a personal journal, not a secret-keeping journal. Chrysalis’ secret papers were only a myth. All that information was kept by Mother, who died in the fire. Brennan nearly gives up on finding the murderer, but a homunculus leads him to Ezili’s loft where he finds some of Chrysalis’ stolen things, thus revealing (to him, not us) the identity of the murderer.

Chapter 8: Monday, July 25, 1988

Ti-Malice and Blaise leave, giving Hiram and Jay a chance to talk. Hiram brokenly describes his addiction and his inability to fight Ti-Malice. When Ti-Malice returns, he has Blaise telepathically immobilize Jay in preparation to mount up. Jay yells for Hiram to fight Blaise instead and finally, finally Hiram does. It works, breaking the telepathic hold, so that Jay’s able to popinjay Ti-Malice away to a certain death. (*Cheers enthusiastically*) Cut to Blaise in the hospital, Hiram in shock over being free, and Jay left with the task of informing Tachyon about what’s happened to his grandkid. He also reveals his conclusion that it was one of Ti-Malice’s mounts, Charm, who killed Chrysalis. We think the murder is solved.

Brennan and Wraith fly down to Atlanta in an effort to catch the killer. They encounter Jay, Hiram, and Tachyon and reveal the true answer to the book’s main mystery: Who killed Chrysalis? Turns out Jay was wrong. Instead, her secret lover, Hiram Worchester, did it! And it’s confirmed—Hiram reveals that he discovered Chrysalis had paid an assassin to kill Hartmann. They’d fought, Hiram had used his gravity power to sit Chrysalis down in a chair, but in his anger he accidently used too much force and killed her. While it was an accident, he then framed someone else for the crime. Yeoman wants to execute Hiram right there. He and Jay argue over justice and whether Hiram deserves to die; it’s one of Jay’s finest moments, and one of Brennan’s worst (in my opinion; what do you think?). Tachyon manages to broker a peace, with the understanding that Hiram will turn himself in.

Brennan and Wraith leave Atlanta and NYC for good, and this time, they take all of Mother’s surviving homunculi with them. Jay returns to the city and catches up with Digger, whose cat carrier had been sent to Alaska instead of Atlanta. Digger’s almost done growing back to his normal size. Using Digger’s great secret (ace) as blackmail, Jay ties up both the Ace in the Hole and Dead Man’s Hand storylines: he convinces Digger not to reveal Hartmann’s secret ace in exchange for Hiram’s confession.


Some General Thoughts

One feature of the Wild Cards novels set in NYC is the importance of the city and the topography of Jokertown. There are a number of landmarks that the characters visit over and over in this book; the locales are fleshed out in greater detail each time: the Crystal Palace, the Wild Card Dime Museum, Fort Freak and the Tombs (the Jokertown precinct’s jail), Aces magazine, Squisher’s Basement, Ezili’s apartment, the chemist’s garden, Jay’s apartment, and so on. As a detective murder-mystery, there’s a lot of back and forth, gathering data and criss-crossing the urban landscape. At times, some of these wild card NYC books seem decidedly urban fantasy (or the science fiction equivalent of urban fantasy), with the character of the city and its denizens coming across particularly strongly. In this case, the culturally evocative cityscape of Jokertown predominates. That urban fantasy element is especially apparent in Dead Man’s Hand, given that our main characters are trying to solve a grisly non-nat murder, using their wit, skill, and powers, while being chased about by lots of angry non-nat characters. What do you guys think: can Wild Cards be categorized as urban fantasy-sf? (Also, is it strange that I always think of Brennan and urban fantasy every time I hear Judas Priest’s “The Sentinel”?)

This book has some pretty interesting themes as well. Addiction and its deleterious physical and emotional impacts come to the fore (most clearly in Ti-Malice’s kiss and the Shadow Fist’s drug Rapture). The final debate about justice between Jay and Brennan touches on some weighty topics connected to the nature of right and wrong. There’s also the emphasis on secrets revealed and secrets kept: Chrysalis’ secret knowledge, her secret lover, the need to expose the secret murderer, and conversely, the absolute necessity to keep Hartmann’s ace secret for the safety of all wild carders. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny in some places, so the humor helps to offset some of the heavier themes.

Ultimately, Dead Man’s Hand wraps up several long-term storylines: the Ti-Malice arc (introduced in WC IV) and Brennan’s quest against the Shadow Fists (introduced in WC I). It brings to a close the second wild cards trilogy (or, the sort-of-trilogy composed of WC IV, V, VI, and VII). We’ll start the third wild cards trilogy next time with One-Eyed Jacks.

Katie Rask is an assistant professor of archaeology and classics at Duquesne University. She’s excavated in Greece and Italy for over 15 years.


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