(That I Didn’t Create)
By Walton (Bud) Simons
“Might as well, can’t dance.”
Unlike the comics that inspired Wild Cards, there are very few lines of dialogue that are specifically associated with one of our characters. Sure, Jetboy’s “I can’t die yet, I haven’t seen the Jolson Story!” is iconic. Still, he only said it once and won’t be saying it again. But if a reader encounters “Might as well, can’t dance,” that’s Jay Ackroyd, Wild Cards resident hard-boiled (or thereabouts) detective.
I’ve always had a soft spot for good detective stories. Never cared much for police stories, but following the solitary gumshoe sticking his neck out for a client is really appealing. I’ve read a fair amount of Chandler and Hammett, and of course, Conan Doyle, but the detectives that captured my imagination most were on the silver screen. William Powell’s Nick Charles is tremendously engaging. He’s witty, perceptive, and has kept his street-smarts in spite of marrying into wealth. Myrna Loy as Nora is the perfect screen counterpart to Nick: beautiful, funny, and challenging. They’re delightful.
Nick is urbane, but my two favorite screen detectives are urban and both come courtesy of Humphrey Bogart. His Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe define the screen P.I. as far as I’m concerned. They’re both whip smart, hard as nails, and stick to their personal code, no matter the consequences. Of the two performances, I prefer Bogart’s Marlowe. He’s cynical, but a tad less hard-bitten than Sam Spade, and the very obvious chemistry with Lauren Bacall doesn’t hurt. I’ve seen The Big Sleep so many times I’m almost sure I actually know who killed whom. Almost.
Back to Jay, whose ace name is Popinjay (he hates it). It may be pure coincidence, but like Bogart, Jay is 5’8” and has brown hair and eyes. I have no idea to what extent George was thinking Bogart when he created Jay, but I’d be shocked if there wasn’t some inspiration there. Still, there are major differences. Whereas Bogart’s features are memorable, Jay’s are nondescript. And Jay has challenges Bogart’s detective characters never faced. Jay has terrible nightmares, so in his case “the stuff that dreams are made of” is truly horrific. The nightmares figure significantly in his storyline and also cause him to be a bedwetter. Hard to imagine any big screen detective having to deal with that.
My first encounter with Jay was in Jokers Wild. Actually, it was Demise who ran into him, but identifying with our characters is an occupational hazard. Spector had the misfortune of running into Jay and Hiram Worchester just when he thought he’d gotten his hands on some very important missing books. Hiram crushed his foot with the books and Jay popped him to the scoreboard at Yankee Stadium.
Jay is a projecting teleport, so he can send anyone or anything of reasonable size to any place he’s been before. In order for his power to work, Jay has to form his hand into the shape of a gun – ironic, since Jay loathes guns. This tic, and Jay only being able to pop things somewhere he’s been previously, create necessary limitations to his power.
Interestingly, Jay was a significant character in three true Wild Card mosaic novels. In addition to Jokers Wild, Jay was a POV in Dead Man’s Hand and Black Trump. Some of you may note that Dead Man’s Hand isn’t a true mosaic, it’s a novel by George and John J. Miller. The book didn’t start out that way, though. Originally, the Popinjay and Yeoman were supposed to be viewpoint characters in Ace in the Hole, but the book ran long. As in very, very long. So George pulled his and John’s storylines from that volume and created Dead Man’s Hand. I think it was all to the good. Dead Man’s Hand is a straight-up mystery, with Jay and Brennan working together (sort of) to solve the murder of one of Jokertown’s leading citizens. The pair are anything but a happy team. They go together like peanut butter and sushi. Jay’s personal code is intractable (to him there are no guidelines, only rules), causing all kinds of friction. Brennan on the other hand is willing to do whatever is necessary to get results. Still, everything I love about Jay is on display here. If you like Jay and/or Brennan or favor a good detective yarn, this is a Wild Cards book you shouldn’t pass up. Happily, it now back in print.
I got an opportunity to write Jay for the first time in One-Eyed Jacks. The book was a coming-out party of sorts for Jerry Strauss/Mr. Nobody. Jerry had been a supporting character in the Wild Cards series from the first volume, when he was called the Projectionist, but this was his first chance to take center stage. In One-Eyed Jacks Jerry hired Jay to do some P.I. work, a relationship that continued in the next volume, Jokertown Shuffle. From the outset, I thought they were a good pairing. Both were snoops. Ackroyd was the professional, and Jerry the loose-cannon amateur who managed to stay mostly out of trouble through his shape-changing ability. Jerry admired Jay, seeing in the detective a level of competence and expertise he doubted he could ever achieve. Of course Jay had clients other than Jerry during this time period, including Dr. Tachyon, which led him off-planet for the first, and probably last, time.
The ensuing interstellar adventure was Double Solitare by Melinda Snodgrass. This was one of Jay’s most eventful experiences; plenty of good and more than a little bad to go along with it. During the course of the book he travelled to Takis, sustained a horrific injury, found his future Takisian spouse Hastet, and became wealthy. An accomplished chef, Hastet opened a restaurant, Starfields, when the couple finally made their way back to Earth. While Jay was away, Jerry, an enterprising impersonator, took his place and kept the agency going in his absence. At this point Jay moved to more upscale digs and his detective agency became Ackroyd and Creighton, the latter being Jerry’s nom de snoop.
Jerry initially led the charge for the agency in the Card Sharks trilogy, but Jay had one of his most significant roles in the finale, Black Trump. For my money, Black Trump is Jay at his most resourceful and heroic. Unfortunately, Black Trump is long out-of-print and hard to find. Even more unfortunately, it was the last time George wrote a Jay story.
Jay and his detective friends weren’t put out to pasture by any means; the entire Ackroyd and Creighton agency played a major role in John J. Miller’s novel, Death Draws Five, and he also showed up in Suicide Kings.
Although they aren’t considered canon in the Wild Cards universe, Epic Comics did a series of four Wild Card comic books. There was a mystery bomber, and a mystery meant Jay Ackroyd was on hand to help solve it. I was lucky enough to write a Jay section, and had great fun doing it.
This brings me to the main reason I love Jay Ackroyd. He’s fun to read, but he’s even more fun to write. You see, Jay has something very few characters in the Wild Card universe possess – a sharp sense of humor.
Don’t get me wrong, I love our cast of aces and jokers. But, realistically, they’ll never be confused with the cast of Saturday Night Live, even during SNL’s most dismal years. In fairness, we do have a few characters who are funny or at least quippy, but in general our creations are pretty challenged in the humor department. That’s never been true of Jay. Sometimes his jokes are cutting, other times self-deprecating. But if he’s around, there’s usually a clever comment or jibe around the corner. That quality alone puts a character on the short list of those I want to include in one of my stories.
Although Demise was my first love, sick as that sounds, Jerry Strauss is a photo finish runner-up in terms of writing pleasure. I’ve done four Wild Cards stories featuring Jerry Strauss/Mr. Nobody. Three have been published, with the most recent one scheduled for the upcoming book, Texas Hold’em. Jay has appeared in each of them (because I love writing him), but the story in Texas Hold’em required some extra effort to get him there. From the outset I included a scene set at the Ackroyd and Creighton detective agency. George thought it was extraneous. Normally, I don’t disagree with George because in the long run he has an annoying tendency to be right. On this occasion I stuck to my guns. Not only because I thought it was necessary to reestablish a bit of Jerry’s background for new readers, but because I love writing interplay between those two characters. I cut it down a bit to make George happy (very important), but if you pick up a copy of Texas Hold’em when it arrives next year Jay will be there. If there are any future stories for Mr. Nobody, I’ll do my best to make sure Jay comes along for the ride. I enjoy writing him that much.
Like so many characters from the early days of Wild Cards, Jay is getting a little long in the tooth. I’m hoping he has another grand adventure or two left in him before he finally hangs up his popping finger. If I could talk to him (which is ridiculous, since I only talk to my own characters) to ask if he was up for another go-round of Wild Cards insanity, I’m betting he’d say:
“Might as well, can’t dance.”