It’s tough to take a whodunnit seriously in this day and age. The days of noir and pulp print are long dead – relics of the 20th century, unfortunately moving ever closer to becoming kitsch (God forbid). With this sad decline in mind, I’m always happy to see a good mystery novel step up to the proverbial plate and… well… not quite hit a home run, but round third base pretty effectively, scoring one for what I like to think of as the plucky Little League kids against the tremendous, ‘roided-up Yankees team that resides in the top 10 list at any given time.
Now, Stephen King gets a lot of shit from the sort of fancy folks who read ‘literature’. I think this is because he represents pop-literature, and there is a sad, snivelling satisfaction to be gained when you deride the mainstream and rave about the underground, the unknown. I remember being at a party once and this chick asked me what I was reading. I said I’d just finished Duma Key (10/10, would read to naughty children). She looked at me much as if I’d said my holiday read had been the extra-Aryan print of Mein Kampf. “Oh, God! You don’t like Stephen King do you,” I believe suffices as a decent approximation of her shitty, smarmy response. Now at the time, I mumbled and stuttered and lit a cigarette and tried to forget my faux pas. But the older, wiser writer of this piece is here now and, before I tell you that Joyland was actually pretty good, I’m going to make a case for Steve.
Stephen King is an American hero. He’s prolific, and he has, to a large degree, kept the horror genre alive in print all but singlehandedly since he managed to get Carrie published back in the 70s. He’s arguably the author who has had the most film adaptations made from his work, and he even directed one of his own, Maximum Overdrive – a film so insanely bonkers it could only have been made by a man who was, by his own admission, coked out of his mind throughout production. I’m not saying that’s something to be proud of, but there is something morbidly cool about someone so fucked up through most of his writing career that he can’t recall writing any part of one of his best works (Cujo – probably the best book ever written about a rabid dog). In spite of his hectic ‘other job’ as a high-functioning addict (Steve got clean in the 80s. One can’t dare to say his work improved, but it certainly didn’t decline), King still managed to be an incredibly descriptive writer. When you read his work, you’re there. You feel and smell and taste and hear the world he creates for you. In an increasingly visual society, I’m finding it rare to find a book that works all the senses like that. One that’s so immersive.
And thus, with frankly genius planning, I’ve brought us right back to Joyland.
As I’ve mentioned, this is a mystery novel. It’s not a long one, mind, and features only a slight supernatural grounding. Set in the 70s, in the eponymous Joyland amusement park, our narrator and main character, Devin “Jonesy” Jones, is a bit of an everyman. Nothing special. Nothing extraordinary. I like that. You make a lead character too cool, or too clever, or too special, and they get unrelatable, don’t they? Yes, they do. Shut up and keep reading.
So 21 year-old college student Jonesy finds work in Joyland, near Heaven’s Bay, North Carolina, and meets with psychics and carnies and cool co-workers and just generally gets on with his summer job. Oh, and he starts to investigate a cold-case murder. Almost forgot that bit. What’s cool though is that it’s not surprising. When you watch a horror film, or even read some horror fiction, you frequently find yourself shouting, “No, Dumbass! Don’t go into [insert spooky location here]! That’s obviously where the murderer is!” but, with this novel, you never find yourself wondering if maybe poking around the case of the girl with the slashed throat in the GHOST TRAIN is a bad idea. Some form of New England sorcery has clearly been employed by King on this front.
So, obviously, the murder gets solved, some people live, some people die, some people die pretty early on, some much, much later. I’m not in the business of giving out spoilers. I’m in the business of keeping hoes in line (with a side gig as a critic), so I won’t go much further into plot details than that, except to say that there are mentions of ghosts, psychics, faith healers and serial killers. So my lips are sealed and, if you want to know what happens, you’ll read the book.
Looping awkwardly back to what I said about the immersive nature of Stephen King’s novels, I’d like to mention that this is achieved quite well with the use of carny slang in Joyland. Some is genuine carny slang, some is made up bullshit, but all of it feels real. All of it lends a sense of authenticity. So, too, does the description of the behind-the-curtain details of amusement park operations. I can’t say I’ve ever worked at one – I’ve done Disneyland (the corporate scum that eventually killed smaller, Joyland-esque independent amusement parks) – but I’ve never really thought about how they run. At least not until I was more or less told, by this book. To clarify, I’m not recommending this as a training manual. I’m just pointing something out. This is not a book set in an amusement park. This is a book set in a very real and practical and functional world. And, at least when I read it, I was there, sweating right along with Devin Jones in the costume of Howie the Happy Hound, the park mascot (FYI: weirdly important to the story, that dog. But, like I said, lips sealed).
Now, a major problem with a mystery novel like this is that the reader can often guess the killer’s identity from about the halfway point. I did, and I was right in the end. There are a few twists and turns in the last couple of chapters that throw you, make you think, ‘oh, maybe I’m not right,’ but then, with this thuddy, end-of-chapter name drop, your suspect number one is now the confirmed baddie. And it is at this point that you may just stand up and shout to an uncaring world, “Hah! I fucking knew it!”, kick over a table of overpriced coffee, and scream in the face of a five year old, “Yeahhh, bitch! I knew it was **** ***** from day fucking one!!”. You may be asked to leave the Starbucks at this point.
It was a Costa Coffee.
So will this book make you laugh, make you cry, and change your life? No. It’s good, but not that good. Better than middle of the road, but not great literature that will be remembered through the ages. It is what it is. A whodunnit. A novel from Hard Case Crime that will entertain you. No masterpiece, that I’ll admit, but definitely worth a read. You won’t regret it and, shit, you might even find a new favorite author. I’ve pretty much re-found mine.
Quoteworthy: “What I know now is that gallant young men rarely get pussy. Put it on a sampler and hang it in your kitchen.”
– Stephen King, Joyland, with some good words to live by