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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, September 28, 2013

King's "Joyland" is a Whodunit With Vivid Characters and a Solid Mystery

By Stephen King
288 pages
( Hard Case Crime; First Edition June 4, 2013)
ISBN-10: 1781162646
ISBN-13: 978-1781162644

Stephen King is not primarily known as a mystery writer. 

According to his website, Stephen King.com, only a handful of the 45 novels he has written deal with crime (Dolores Claiborne, Misery, The Colorado Kid, etc.) and one of those is his prison drama, The Green Mile, which is less a mystery than a study of human good and evil with a supernatural twist.

Nonetheless, when King writes a whodunit, he writes a good one. And his latest, Joyland, released as a Hard Case Crime imprint in June, is one of his best.

Stephen King, known for his horror stories, is a dab hand with whodunits, too!

The novel is told from the point of view of Devin Jones, a college student who takes a summer job at Joyland, a beachfront North Carolina amusement park that has seen better days. 

There is no Madeleine's sweet scent to spark the story, no "best of times" or "worst of times:" The narrative unfolds with Jones as a much older man, reminiscing in the first person about events  that occurred many years before. He plunges directly into his story without any artifice, the way a stranger might during an impromptu conversation in a small town coffee shop.

The reader quickly learns Jones is a down-and-out scholar at a New England college who needs summer employment to continue his education. He answers a help-wanted ad he spots in a magazine and wins the job as a "dog's body" -- literally at times -- who keep's the place going.

Hanging over Devin's head is the depressing fact that he is being dumped by his girlfriend, Wendy. The break-up leaves him morose and mildly suicidal, with a tendency to sit in his boarding house bedroom listening to doleful tunes such as "The End" by Jim Morrison. As Devin puts it himself a little more than a dozen pages into the book:

"I was a twenty-one year-old virgin with literary aspirations. I possessed three pairs of bluejeans, four pairs of Jockey shorts, a clunker Ford with a good radio, occasional suicidal ideations, and a broken heart."

"Sweet, huh?"

At Joyland, Jones quickly becomes a favorite among most of the park's staff and customers -- particularly after he heroically saves the life of a little girl choking on a piece of hot dog and gives CPR to a long-time park staffer who is dying from an incapacitating heart attack.

The only supernatural element of the story is revealed during Devin's first visit to the park: Joyland is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a young woman whose throat was slashed by a mysterious attacker  in the "horror house," a creepy ride that is often used as a make-out spot by Joyland's teenaged patrons. 

Despite the fact that the killer appears with his victim on at least two pictures that were taken by the park's photographers on the day of the murder, he left no other clues and the crime remains unsolved four years later.

As the summer winds on, Devin makes a number of friends who will end up playing a significant role in the story: he is taken under the wing of the park's elderly owner; another senior staffer becomes his protector and shows him the ropes; he becomes close to two college-age kids who also have been hired to work at the park, Erin and Tom; his landlady fills him in on local lore and the town librarian gives him information about the mysterious murder; finally, Devin develops a relationship with a crippled boy and mother, Mike and Annie, that will change his life -- and help him resolve his depression over his romantic breakup.

All the characters are deftly sketched and portrayed with a vivid and loving touch. Even relatively minor figures get King's undivided attention.

Part of the book's charm is that it leaves the reader with the sense that he or she actually knows these people. It seems strange to say but even though Joyland is only 288 pages long, it seems longer; King manages to pack more than a summer's worth of action into less than 300 pages, yet readers will finish the book wishing for more.

In addition, King makes good use of the amusement park and midway slang he puts in his characters' mouths.  Some of this argot is legit, taken directly from reference works about carny lingo. Quite a bit of it was simply invited by King, himself. Whether real or facsimile, all of his terminology is served up in a way that lets the reader know what it means, and it adds layers of verisimilitude to his story and believability to his characters.

Much of Joyland deals with Devin's recovery from his derailed first romance and his relationship with his workmates and the crippled child, Mike. But the engine that keeps the novel moving forward is the "whodunit" -- the grisly murder that occurred in the amusement park's "horror house." Devin becomes obsessed by a gruesome desire to see the slain girl's ghost and figure out who killed her; Erin is disturbed by the crime and its supposedly supernatural twist; Surprisingly, even Tom -- the most skeptical and hard-headed of the young trio -- is shocked and changed forever by the killing and its apparent connection to the otherworldly.

By the final pages, Devin gathers enough clues to unmask the villain. The solution to the mystery is not one of those cheapies where key facts are withheld until the bad guy is revealed: King arranges all the evidence as if challenging his readers to identify the culprit. But Joyland is not one of those novels where unmasking the villain is a critical part of the fun.

Instead, the novel is like a trip through the park's chamber of horrors: in Joyland, you will find that just enjoying the ride provides a bigger thrill than you'd get from winning a cheesy prize at one of the park's concession stands. And trust me: you, like Devin Jones, will find the experience haunting.

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