Why I haven't read more Repairman Jack, I have no idea, because I keep seeing him spoken of in reverent terms and I did start early, after all, with 'The Tomb' half a century ago. While I read 'The Tomb' as a standalone novel, it soon became the second volume of F. Paul Wilson's 'Adversary Cycle', following 'The Keep', and Repairman Jack quickly escaped its clutches to become what is surely the biggest star of all of Wilson's books.
His own series, begun in 'The Tomb' and finishing along with the 'Adversary Cycle' in entirety in 'Nightworld', currently amounts to sixteen novels plus two trilogies and a collection of short stories for a total of 23 books. In his author's note for 'Fear City,' Wilson suggests that he's done all he can (or wants to do) with his most popular character and doesn't expect to return to Repairman Jack for future books, but he remains open to the possibility if the right story arises. I wouldn't be shocked if it does.
I expected to feel rather out of place reconnecting with Repairman Jack in the third volume of a second trilogy that arrived after so many other books, but I found it surprisingly accessible. Realising that anyone can read 'Fear City' without having any background with or, indeed, knowing anything at all about Repairman Jack was my first surprise. My second was how mainstream it all is.
My experience with F. Paul Wilson started in horror with 'The Keep' and the broader 'Adversary Cycle' and sidetracked into science fiction with 'Healer.' However, 'Fear City' turns out to be a rather mainstream thriller, shaping the nascent character of Repairman Jack through his peripheral involvement with the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 by Muslim terrorists, each of whom are fictionalised here in detail. Apparently the Repairman Jack novels have a supernatural flavour but unfold mostly as thrillers, a sort of modern-day urban fantasy version of 'The Equalizer..
Jack, who gains his broader name during this book, becomes involved through different plot strands connecting together. One is a friend called Dane Bertel, who works or at least worked for some agency or other and who has a bee in his bonnet about Islamic terrorists. He believes he's discovered something of note and wants Jack's help to investigate. A second is Cristin, a former girlfriend who vanishes mysteriously instead of showing up for a get-back-in-touch lunch date. He investigates there too and finds himself drawn into something much bigger than he expects. Of course, as a man with a reputation for taking care of business, it isn't too big for him to handle.
While Jack is the central character of the book, as befits its status as the final volume in 'The Early Years' trilogy that provides background to why he's the way he is and sets him up for the adventures to come, he's far from the only protagonist in play. I'm not even sure if he even has the highest word count, Wilson eager to outline everyone's part in proceedings in great detail.
Who else gets plenty of attention is highlighted by the two books Wilson cites in his acknowledgements as key inspirations: 'Two Seconds Under the World' and 'Surviving the Mob: A Street Soldier's Life Inside the Gambino Crime Family.' The former provides background to each of the Muslim terrorists who aimed to topple the North Tower of the World Trade Center into the South Tower back in 1993. We're taken through the whole process: assembling a team, seeking funding, building the bombs, driving them to their detonation points and onwards. The latter is the grounding for a feud inside a New York crime family which prompts money being loaned to those Muslims and thus setting the whole show in motion.
The third group of characters is the most interesting but it's the one with least attention given to it. I presume the Ancient Septimus Fraternal Order has a prominence in the later Repairman Jack novels and very likely the wider 'Adversary Cycle', but it's mostly kept in the background here, causing plot strands to move in particular directions, whether deliberately or not. The three members of the order that we meet believe themselves to be orchestrators, spiders weaving their webs, but they prompt a lot more than they expect here, often to their own disadvantage.
I enjoyed the story, an intricately plotted piece with each of these factions playing their respective parts in a bigger picture than any of them can see. My biggest concern was in how methodical it seems, with so much detail given to us in such short chapters that it often feels like a framework for a much bigger novel. This detail, clearly garnered or extrapolated from those books mentioned in the acknowledgements, renders this something of a journalistic exploration of real events filtered through a novelist's virtual pen and with Repairman Jack added in as the final piece in the puzzle.
We don't get attached to many of the characters, not that we'd particularly want to, partly because they're not likeable and partly because we know full well that most of them are going to die. Jack, this being a prequel trilogy, clearly survives and is by far the most sympathetic character. As I haven't read 'Cold City' and 'Dark City', I can't say that he didn't fully become an antihero until this book, but that's the impression I get. Yet he does so in such a carefully crafted manner that we can't help following him all the way. The book works very well as what the inner sleeve calls a 'katabasis,' or a journey into the depths. Circumstances provide him with the depths, he takes that journey and he comes back up again a new man, ready for the legend that is to follow.
There's little more to say. We know much of the story because it's factual. F. Paul Wilson does change a few things up for the sake of fiction, but it would seem that the Islamic terrorists did in real life pretty much what they do in this book, up to a point. The infighting within the Campisi family also feels real, to the degree that it wouldn't surprise me if Wilson framed his fiction around real events there too. Of course, the strands following the Ancient Septimus Fraternal Order must be complete fiction. Right?
All of this might be of major import to us in the real world, but it's simply background detail that colours Jack's katabasis. He's the only character who truly matters here and so, even with less attention than I expected in a book all about him, he dominates proceedings. He's the only man with a story arc, one that gives him a name and a purpose, one that will only build as the rest of the Repairman Jack novels unfold. Here, it's framed in reality, but he'll soon find that reality in Wilson's world includes supernatural elements too.
Wilson's writing style is fluid, much more so than I remember from 'The Keep' and 'The Tomb.' However, the book itself feels more carefully constructed, as if those early stories ached to escape from his subconscious onto paper, thus effectively writing themselves, but later ones like this were constructed by a bestselling novelist from bedrock upwards. It's too carefully done for my tastes, but the wider thriller audience will probably appreciate that technique.
I do find myself interested in the bigger Repairman Jack picture, but while I probably ought to follow up with 'Cold City' and 'Dark City', to give me the full picture of his early years, I feel like I have that from this book alone and I should move forward instead with a return visit to 'The Tomb' and on from there, as listed in the chronology that Wilson titles 'Secret History of the World' and kindly outlines for us at the end of 'Fear City.' Only time will tell which direction I go. Of course, having 'The Tomb' in my library probably makes enough difference, but then it'll be over to Amazon. ~~ Hal C F Astell