Joyland is as close to a "sure bet" as I have read in a long while. First, I am among those who proclaim King as America's greatest living storyteller. He is proof you can write genre fiction and crowd pleasers, that are among the best books out there right now. (See my review of 11.22.63 which is one of the best books I have ever read, not to mention the greatness of The Stand.) Joyland serves as an example of King's skill at telling a story that will literally engulf you while you are reading it. He puts you in the world he has created and everything else around you disappears. This is not not a great work of literature, but it is a well constructed, fun sotory for a wide range of readers.
Let's talk details real briefly though. This is a genre mashup of an old fashioned crime story with a ghost story. The entire novel also has a nostalgic tone as our narrator, Devin Jones is looking back on a pivotal year when he came down from New Hampshire to North Carolina to work at one of the last old boardwalk amusement parks of the South in the early 70s.
The story that follows is Devin's coming-of-age tale. There are tons of details about working at the amusement park and living in a vacation beach town. He makes life long friends and gets meets a mother and her sick son, both of whom captivate Devin. But the plot is driven by the ghost/ crime story. The ghost is one of a girl who a few years back was murdered in the haunted house ride while it was operating. Her murder was never solved and Devin and his friends get themselves caught up in catching the killer.
The mystery angle is well done with plenty of detail within the story that could lead you to solving the mystery yourself, but with plenty of believable red-herrings to keep you on your toes. It helps that the suspects are all involved with the carney world, so they are all a little unreliable and shady from the start. This frame and its consequences then sets the perfect suspenseful tone for the entire novel.
I do have to reassure those of you who are not horror fans, this book is not as scary as the cover lets on. This is a great choice for people who want to try King, but are scared easily. I have proof to back this up. My sister-in-law hates scary books and she loved Joyland. The tone is more of a slow creep; there are no monsters jumping out at you; there is no blood and gore. The suspense builds throughout the story. Yes there is a ghost story angle, but it is the ghost of the girl who wants her murder solved, and while there are characters who most definitely encounter the ghost, Devin (despite his best efforts) never does.
The side story of Devin's friendship with the sick ten year old, is a nice addition. Being so close to death, the boy has a very real connection with the ghost and this detail enhances the story.
Overall, this is a fast paced story that has it all-- great characters, a compelling mystery, a well defined and interesting setting, and a suspenseful creep that glues you to the book. I cannot suggest this book enough, especially to throw into you bag on a weekend getaway.
One final point I want to make is about the publisher. Hard Case Crime, who published this paperback original does a great job as a small press. From their website:
Hard Case Crime brings you the best in hardboiled crime fiction, ranging from lost noir masterpieces to new novels by today’s most powerful writers, featuring stunning original cover art in the grand pulp style.I recently met someone who works for Hard Case Crime and he said that a one-off by Stephen King like Joyland, pays for them to do everything else for the entire year; it gives them the freedom to take more chances and also, makes people notice them. I know our library has had great success circulating many of their books, and not just the Stephen King and Lawrence Block releases. So thanks to King for writing a great story, and for using his talent to help a small press, with a worthwhile mission, to continue to stay in business.
Three Words That Describe This Book: nostalgic, fast paced, creepy crime fiction
Readalikes: Joyland is such a great, fun read for so many different types of readers that I have MANY suggestions that go in a variety of different directions.
As I just mentioned, Hard Case Crime publishes many similar books, old and new that would greatly appeal to fans of Joyland. Click here for their full catalog.
The overall feel of Joyland-- the nostalgia, the cold case needing to be solved, the emotional attachment of the troubled "detective," all reminded me of Tana French's fabulous debut suspense novel-- In the Woods. Although there is one big difference here, while Devin has as much inner turmoil as Rob in In the Woods, Devin is a reliable narrator while Rob is highly unreliable. See my review of In the Woods for more detail. I do feel a strong connection between these book however, one that traditional RA resources may not bring to light.
Back to more "traditional" suggestions though. I love the boardwalk, and the one King recreates here was fabulous. In fact, I loved the whole carney angle, with all the details about the amusement park world. Fairs, carnivals, boardwalks, circuses, etc.. have always fascinated me, and I don't mean because I like going on rides. Whenever I am in one of these locales, I am constantly looking around at the workers and thinking about what drew them to this life and what it is like behind the scenes. It also lends itself so nicely to a creepy feel, which I love. So, if it is the frame that appeals to you here, I would also suggest these titles:
- Carniepunk a 2013 compilation by some big name authors
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
- Palisades Park by Alan Brennert for a more nostalgic look at the boardwalk over a longer period of time. This one is not speculative at all; pure historical fiction.
- Click here for one of my longer discussions of books with this frame. There are also other nostalgic books listed there that I think pair nicely with Joyland (like Niagara Falls All Over Again).
Joyland is also a good old-fashioned, fast paced, hard-boiled, crime novel. Beyond the Hard Case Crime catalog, linked above, here are a few more suggestions of hard-boiled crime fiction dealing with a cold case (because seriously, I had to narrow it down a bit):
- Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais
- Back Story by Robert B. Parker
- Purple Cane Road by James Lee Burke
- The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos
The first three titles are from long running series. They are NOT the first book, but all three series are great examples of modern hard boiled crime novels. Pelecanos, writes series and stand alone titles. He is my current go-to author for readers looking for a great crime novel. He has it all.