Down and Dirty: Lacks cohesion, but still entertaining

Down and Dirty edited by George R.R. MartinDown and Dirty edited by George R.R. Martin

Jube: Hear who won the Miss Jokertown Beauty Pageant last week?
Croyd: Who?
Jube: Nobody.

I continue to listen to the new audiobook version of the WILD CARDS books as they are released by Random House Audio. Down and Dirty, the fifth volume, was published a few weeks ago. If you haven’t read the previous volumes (Wild CardsAces High, Jokers Wild, Aces Abroad), you should do so before reading this review. I’ll assume you’re familiar with the format of these anthologies / mosaic novels, and the story so far.

Down and Dirty (originally published in 1988) has a strange structure which, as George R.R. Martin admits in the book’s afterword, doesn’t work extremely well. Martin explains that the authors who share the WILD CARDS universe disagreed about when the stories should take place (e.g. before or after the world tour that was described in the previous book, Aces Abroad). Trying to please everyone, Martin agreed that Down and Dirty would straddle the world tour — some of the stories would take place before the tour left and some would take place after it returned. However, this division caused an enormous editorial problem and the resulting story feels episodic and patchy. Worse, the authors didn’t seem to agree on the overarching plot or the importance of the various subplots, so the story lacks focus. The part that tells of the gang war is a sequel to Jokers Wild while the part about Senator Hartman is a sequel to Aces Abroad. Honestly, it’s sloppy, but Martin says it was a major learning experience for him and since today, 28 years later, he is without doubt one of the best editors in the business, perhaps lessons learned during the making of Down and Dirty are partly responsible. At least that’s how I chose to think about it while reading this volume.

The events in Down and Dirty take place from October 1986 to June 1987 and are told in several stories, each written by a particular author. Martin weaves them all together, breaking some of the stories in to several different parts to fit the overall chronological narrative. “Only the Dead Know Joker Town” by John J Miller is a direct sequel to Jokers Wild. A gang war has started in Jokertown. Brennan (Yeoman) disguises himself and joins Kien’s gang because they are trying to get revenge on Jennifer Meloy (Wraith) and Brennan wants to protect her. This story introduces some awesome new Aces: Fadeout, Lazy Dragon, and Deadhead. I’d love to tell you what their Ace powers are, but it’d spoil the story for you.

In “All the King’s Horses” George R.R. Martin brings back The Great and Powerful Turtle, who everyone thinks is dead. He’s not, but his shell was destroyed and he’s too embarrassed to use one of his old ones and too poor to construct a new one. He’s been laying low, but a friend urges him to come back.

All the Wild Card rules are changed in Roger Zelazny’s “Concerto for Siren and Serotonin” when Croyd Crenson, The Sleeper, unknowingly becomes the carrier of a mutant strain of the Wild Cards virus which can kill Aces and Jokers.

Leanne C. Harper’s “Breakdown” features Rosemary Muldoon, the district attorney who is secretly a mob boss. She and her family are involved in the gang war and she drags Bagabond and Jack Robicheaux into it, as well as Bagabond’s animal friends. Not only are the mobsters dying, but the war is causing civilian deaths, too. As both district attorney and mob boss, Rosemary has a major conflict of interest.

“Jesus Was an Ace,” by Arthur Byron Cover, introduces Reverend Leo Barnett, a sleazy but compassionate televangelist who wants to be president. He’ll be running against Senator Hartman, a man who is even scarier than Barnett. Reminds me of our current political race. (Sorry, was that out loud?) This story introduces Quasiman, who can teleport, though not all of his body parts always arrive at the same time.

In “Blood Ties,” by Melinda M. Snodgrass, Dr. Tachyon is trying to raise the grandson that he brought home from the world tour while helping the citizens of Jokertown fight against the gangs and trying to figure out why the Wild Card virus is mutating and spreading.

“The Second Coming of Buddy Holly” by Edward Bryant is strange and doesn’t fit very well. Cordelia is arranging an AIDS/Joker benefit concert and tries to talk Buddy Holly (who didn’t die in a plane crash and was washed up in the late 80s) to perform. Buddy Holly is a shaman of some sort. There’s a disturbing scene at the end.

In Stephen Leigh’s “The Hue of a Mind,” Misha, the Arab woman who hates Jokers, is in Jokertown. She’s convinced that Senator Hartman is the devil and must be stopped before he is elected president. This story is a direct sequel to the previous book, Aces Abroad, and also stars Gimli, Polyakov, Sara Morgenstern, and Mackie Messer, now working for Hartmann. A great new character is introduced: Oddity, who consists of three personalities who are fused together. This story is really gruesome.

One of the best storylines is in Pat Cadigan’s “Addicted to Love” which features the frightening creature known as Ti Malice who latched on to Hiram when he was in Haiti during the tour. Now he’s in Manhattan and acquiring new mounts. This disturbing subplot is about addiction.

Rosemary Muldoon’s story continues in “Takedown” by Leanne C. Harper. The gang war is getting ugly.

“Mortality” by Walter Jon Williams has a nice philosophical discussion about death and brings back a wonderful character that we thought was gone. I won’t say who, but this character is always amusing and he may get to save the day in this story.

Down and Dirty isn’t the best WILD CARDS volume, but the story is still entertaining and I’m always fascinated by the obvious challenges that Martin faced while editing these books. I also love that these superhero / supervillain stories have a modern sensibility about them, even though they were written decades ago.

Random House Audio’s new version is 21 hours long and narrated by a full case including Erin Bennett, Yasmine Barghouty, Jordan Prentice, Clancy Brown, Stephen McHattie, and Emily Rankin. As I’ve mentioned in my previous reviews, I like the idea of a full cast, but in practice I find it a bit troubling because each character’s perspective is read by a specific narrator which causes each character to have different voices depending on who’s doing the reading. I would prefer one narrator and I think in this case, particularly, it would have helped make Down and Dirty feel less episodic and more cohesive.


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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