Wild Cards Volume 21 - FORT FREAK
Although at first glance, this twenty-first volume in the Wild cards series may appear to be a one-off, it is in fact the first part of a new triad. FORT FREAK covers a five-month period from August to December and focuses on Manhattan's infamous 5th Precinct, located right in the heart of Jokertown.
Linking duties this time are provided by Cherie Priest, as we accompany soon-to-be-retiring Detective Leo 'Ramshead' Storgman during his last five months on the force. In The Rat Race - Part 1, Leo welcomes an old friend, Wanda, who wants to reopen a thirty-five-year-old murder case. Then, in The Rook (by Melinda M. Snodgrass), we're introduced to new-boy, Patrolman Francis Black, as he learns the life of a beat cop ain't all its cracked up to be. In The Rat Race - Part 2, Leo plays a little poker and digs into the ancient Rathole Murders, while in Faith - Part 1 (by John Jos. Miller), Father Squid relives his own memories of that day.
The Rat Race - Part 3 sees Leo and Wanda seeking answers from the press, while in Snake Up Above (by David Anthony Durham), Marcus Morgan, AKA The Infamous Black Tongue, witnesses two cops going bad and goes on the run. Leo deals with the fallout in The Rat Race - Part 4, and in ...And All The Sinners Saints - Part 1 (by Victor Milán and Ty Franck), a rat and a snake help public defender, Charlie 'Flipper' Herriman, see the other side of the story. In Sanctuary - Part 1 (by Mary Ann Mohanraj), Leo's current partner, Michael Stevens, gets a new tenant, and Leo pays a visit to his old partner in The Rat Race - Part 5. Jokertown's protector, The Oddity, receives some bad news in Hope We Die Before We Get Old - Part 1 (by Stephen Leigh), and in The Rat Race - Part 6, Leo and Wanda revisit the scene of the crime.
Leo meets the Button Man in The Rat Race - Part 7, and in More! (by Paul Cornell), The Sleeper helps actress, Abigail Baker, through some first-night nerves. Leo takes his work, and Wanda, home with him in The Rat Race - Part 8, and in ...And All The Sinners Saints - Part 2, Flipper questions Michael about his new living arrangements. Marcus goes underground and finds a reason to go on in Snake In The Hole (by David Anthony Durham); in The Rat Race - Part 9, Leo and Michael go to church; while Father Squid faces the past again in Faith - Part 2. Leo spends time in jail in The Rat Race - Part 10, while in The Straight Man (by Kevin Andrew Murphy), Detective 'Slim Jim' McTate comes face to face with the first Ace.
Croyd Crenson and Leo butt heads in Hope We Die Before We Get Old - Part 1 while in ...And All The Sinners Saints - Part 3, Charlie aids a fugitive and pays the price. The Rat Race - Part 12 sees Leo revisiting his old partner; The Oddity loses control in Hope We Die Before We Get Old - Part 2, and Leo and Father Squid have a heart-to-heart in The Rat Race - Part 13. Father Squid faces the truth in Faith - Part 3, Leo loses his appetite in The Rat Race - Part 14, and Michael's wife goes into action to protect her family in Sanctuary - Part 2. The Rat Race - Part 15 sees Leo escaping his own party, while Marcus is cleared in ...And All The Sinners Saints - Part 4. Leo and Wanda discuss motive in The Rat Race - Part 16, Father Squid opens his doors to the law in Faith - Part 4, The Oddity makes a life-changing decision in Hope We Die Before We Get Old - Part 3, and Leo discovers a secret in The Rat Race - Part 17.
Finally, Snake On Fire (by David Anthony Durham) sees Marcus facing a dragon and discovering his new role in life, Father Squid's Christmas is cut short in Faith - Part 5, and Leo wraps up his final case in The Rat Race - Part 18.
So, with the Aces having gotten the lion's share of the attention so far, FORT FREAK finally allows the Jokers their moment in the sun. To the long-term reader it might actually come as a belated surprise that something like this hasn't been attempted before now, especially when one considers that Jokers constitute ninety per-cent of the Wild Card population, but, hey - better late than never.
Storywise, this entry harks back to the murder-mystery-style plotting of DEAD MAN'S HAND. This time, Cherie Priest's interstitial story, The Rat Race (in a possible nod to James Ellroy's LA CONFIDENTIAL), has new character, Ramshead, attempting to uncover the truth behind a massacre at an all-night diner thirty-five years before. At the same time, David Anthony Durham's Snake Up Above, Snake In the Hole, and Snake on Fire stories also introduce an interesting new addition to the Wild Cards mythos, The Infamous Black Tongue, as he tries to stay one step ahead of everybody after witnessing a brutal police shooting late one night.
Melinda M. Snodgrass's The Rook gets things off to a decent start and allows us to see the inner workings of Jokertown's infamous 5th precinct through the eyes of new boy, Patrolman Francis Black. And by having events focused around Jokertown we're also able to catch up with some old favourites from the series before concentrating on the newer characters. For instance, it's good to see Father Squid again in John Jos. Miller's Faith. And it comes as no surprise to learn that The Oddity's existence hasn't gotten any easier in Hope We Die Before We Get Old. Of all the stories in here, Stephen Leigh really pulls on the reader's heartstrings and makes sure The Oddity's journey becomes the most affecting of all the characters' narratives.
And then there's Paul Cornell's More!, where we finally get the welcome return of fan-favourite, Croyd Crenson, The Sleeper. And not just a cameo, either, but a full co-starring role. After so long, who would have thought? One can only hope this is a hint of things to come and that future volumes will make good use of the oldest Wild Card of all. Or maybe not the oldest, exactly. For, in Kevin Andrew Murphy's highly enjoyable The Straight Man, Detective Slim Jim MacTate meets up with the very first Ace, a woman present when the virus was exposed to Dr Tod's scientists in the first Wild Cards story, Thirty Minutes Over Broadway! A nice little retro touch there for the fans.
As can be seen in the above synopsis, though, most of the contributions have been split up into much smaller segments, which inevitably makes things a little choppy. But the two editors (George and Melinda) still manage to keep things moving along at a steady pace and on the whole, FORT FREAK compares fairly well with previous volumes in the series with the five new authors generally settling in without any problems.
So a healthy balance of old and new, then, eh? Well, kind of. The thing is, everything comes across a little too light-hearted in this instalment - plus it's all a little too low-key and a little too self-contained. Of course, not every Wild Cards novel has to be based around an earth-shattering premise - especially right after the intense, globe-spanning arc of the previous triad - and the story is focusing on one very small area of Manhattan, after all, but with the exception of The Black Tongue saga it has to be said that there's no real sense of danger in any of these stories. Ramshead's investigation, for example, certainly engages the reader throughout, but if the case isn't solved by the end of the book what real difference will it make to anybody? Okay, a murderer will get away with a thirty-five-year-old crime, but since it's a closed case anyway, Leo will still get to retire with his reputation unblemished. That's it? Once can't help feeling that upping the stakes a little would have gone a long way to make this volume more riveting than it is, but perhaps that'll change with the next instalment.
And on that subject, one has to wonder where the next book will go as all the various plot strands seem to be neatly tied up by the end of this one. But then, this is the Wild Cards we're talking about, so who can tell...?
Croyd Crenson: 'When I start needing sleep, when I start having to keep myself awake... I'm pretty variable.'
The Magpie: 'You're not one of those horrible kitten-eating jokers, are you?'
Slim Jim: 'Uh, no.'
The Magpie: 'Good. I can't abide those.'
Charlie 'Flipper' Herriman: 'So how do we get them if this isn't enough? What else do we need?'
Vincent 'Ratboy' Marinelli: 'To get an indictment? A video of Lu Long kneeling on Jesus Christ's own chest while Angel nails through His palms. And even then the Cry's gonna smear the victim.'