It’s difficult to think of a sentence in the literary world that can stir excitement among fans with the consistent, metered frequency as “Stephen King has a new book out.” Such is the case today with the release of Joyland, a new title on Titan Book’s Hard Case Crime imprint, which offers modern takes on the good, old-fashioned pulp crime genre. The Hard Case Crime series features about eighty titles, including a previous effort from King, The Colorado Kid.
Where The Colorado Kid reaches longingly toward the supernatural in what is more of a misappropriated mystery, Joyland bears more resemblance to a straightforward crime novel. (Though, yes, there’s still a ghost thrown in; King just can’t help himself.)
Set in 1973 North Carolina, college student Devin Jones has arrived to work at a small amusement park, once the site of a brutal murder in what is, perhaps, a string of serial killings. What follows is a tale of lost love, coming of age and some impressive amateur crime-solving. In a lot of ways, it’s like an episode of Scooby Doo, right down to the meddling kids solving the crime at the end; although Shaggy and Velma never had to deal with a grisly murder like this one.
Devin and his friends who work at Joyland spend the summer learning about themselves and growing up, but also finding their way around a fun house, hall of mirrors and a cast of characters you would expect to see on a carnival’s midway. Devin, or Jonesy as the full time employees call him, also spends a good deal of time reflecting on (and feeling remorse about) a failed relationship and missed opportunities for sexual initiation. It’s a splendid device for making him more relatable, since so many can relate to their first lost love.
Presented without chapters, Devin’s story grinds away as he learns the ins and outs of amusement park work, entertaining the rubes and learning his way as a ride jock. The book is littered with carny vernacular, which helps to give the story a seedy atmosphere and makes it feel a bit gritty at the same time. As he progresses, his modesty and enthusiasm endear him to the longtime employees and he becomes a park favorite, but the funhouse’s ghost, a leftover from the unsolved murder at the park, eventually has Devin digging into the past.
While the framework is King’s take on a classic whodunit, the author takes us on an unexpected jaunt with a subplot involving a dying child and his overprotective mother. It’s an unexpected zigzag that gives Joyland a real sense of endearment and emotion, a sharp weapon in King’s arsenal, seldom seen in most crime novels, and a twist that makes Joyland more memorable.
Still, the plot takes a while to develop, plodding along for too long before finally picking up steam. Yet, Joyland is no less of a page-turner than any of King’s books, thanks to his ability to develop characters. In Devin, his friends and co-workers, there are personalities that are compelling and possess a sense of familiarity that make them easy to identify with. It’s effortless to cheer for or against them and, as King wraps it up, there’s still enough doubt in the story that it’s hard to say who the killer is until he’s identified.
Crime story fans and King’s Constant Readers will both find a lot to like in Joyland and still be surprisingly moved at times. In his characters and the occasional turn of phrase, King has proven he still has what it takes, even if the story leaves a little to be desired.
Disclosure: GeekDad was sent a copy of this book.