Book Review: Joyland, Stephen King

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Title: Joyland

Author: Stephen King

Published: June 4, 2013

Pages: 288

Genre: Mystery/Crime

Kid Friendly Rating: 12+ Like most Stephen King novels, the book contains some adult themes and situations, but it doesn’t stray very far into adult territory.

Synopsis: 

 

Devin Jones is a college student in 1973 who takes a summer job as a carny at a run-down theme park in North Carolina, Joyland. As an employee at the park, Devin discovers he has the dubious honor of a special talent for “wearing the fur” (playing the park mascot, Howie the Hound), and further earns the trust and respect of park management by saving a girl from choking on a hot dog.

Over the course of the summer, Devin learns about a grisly murder mystery that occurred years ago in the park’s haunted house. To this date, rumors swirl that the victim’s ghost is sometimes seen walking the grounds. Devin’s curiosity gets the best of him, and he can’t resist attempting to piece together the crime and solve the mystery of the alleged ghost.

Stephen King’s status as one of the world’s preeminent horror fiction writers is virtually unquestioned, but one of the interesting things about his writing, to me, is that he puts out some really fantastic work when he strays slightly from the familiar pure-horror genres. The Body (aka Stand by Me), Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Hearts in Atlantis and The Green Mile stand among some of his most interesting titles. Although each of these stories still have one foot in horror or the supernatural, each seem a good deal more sentimental than King’s norm.

My wife (who is also an avid reader of Stephen King) and I have also lamented to each other that sometimes King seems to drive his own stories off the rails by doing what we call, “and then there were aliens.” From a Buick 8 and The Tommyknockers come to mind. Nothing against alien/monster stories, mind you. It just feels like low-hanging fruit at times to inject some type of mythical creature when the narrative is strong enough without it.

With all of this in mind, I was immediately interested to find that King was taking a stab at sort of a pulp-crime novel, and I was not disappointed.

The book contains shades of The Body’s coming-of-age themes, as Devin enters as an uncertain college kid trying to keep his mind off the girlfriend who chose a summer job in Boston with a friend over him. As his relationship with his girlfriend further deteriorates, Devin becomes immersed in the culture of Joyland, and grows into his role, both as an employee, and an individual young man.

King has noted Canobie Lake Park in Salem, NH, as one of the main sources of inspiration for Joyland as a theme park, but it stands as sort of a embodiment of many old-time local theme parks around the United States. Readers will probably find lots of parallels between this place and the familiar haunts of their youth. I myself was reminded constantly of Kennywood in Pittsburgh, Pa.

While the book winds down to a somewhat predictable conclusion, this did not greatly affect my overall enjoyment. As they say, the fun is in the journey, not the destination. King paces the story very quickly, and at only 288 pages, it’s over a bit too soon, if only because I would have liked to spend more time reading it.

Final thoughts:

This should be a fun, quick diversion for any longtime fans of Stephen King, or fans of mystery/crime novels, generally. I give it 4/5 stars.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Ancient History: Short Story: A Day in the Life of a Dreamer

This was a short story written as part of a final project for a Detective Fiction/Criminalistics cluster course that I took in college. It was based on details from a staged crime scene. My professor said I didn’t focus enough on the parts of the crime scene that I was supposed to. Probably true.

A Day in the Life of a Dreamer

Joel Postema smiled as he backed away from the poker table. It was the last time anyone saw that particular emotion grace his face.

***

Ben Knauff couldn’t believe the scene before his piercing blue eyes. As Chief Investigator of the New Wilmington Police Department, he had never seen a murder case before, let alone a brutal slaying like the one at hand. Pools of Postema’s blood mingled below his body as they drifted together toward a small drain in the center of the courtyard.

Knauff paused to reflect on the events that led him to this point. So often in life things don’t turn out as you plan. Knauff originally wanted to be a lawyer, but after several dull years, he realized that his soul would be better served if he could help people in a more direct way. Investigating was his passion, his be all and end all of human existence. It was perhaps also his bane.

A lonely man, Knauff had never married. He thought he might have loved, but invariably his drive and determination to help people resulted in a whirlwind cycle of pain and regret. Love for him wasn’t meant to be. He had more important things to do.

Knauff gathered his thoughts and pressed his attention back to his work. He closed off the area and began his methodic, concentric search for evidence. A scrap of paper reading “Court Yard 10 pm.” A bottle of Jim Beam. A can of Diet Coke. A bloody knife lying beside Postema’s body. A jack of diamonds that had fallen out of Postema’s pocket. It was missing its face, a hole bored straight through it. Knauff paused to think. The evidence seemed inconsistent and manufactured.

The courtyard was really a small pavilion, the result of two buildings connected by a hallway of classrooms. It was accessible by two sets of double doors on opposite ends of the pavilion, but on one side a sidewalk led straight to the crisp morning air. The bottle of Jim Beam was primarily distracting Knauff. It looked unnatural, nestled in the corner of the lower set of double doors. He dismissed it for the time being but noted that it would have to be analyzed for prints. Too bad. Knauff knew glass surfaces are notoriously difficult for print lifting. He would have to be lucky.

Knauff cautiously collected the peculiar evidence and sent it to the New Wilmington Forensics Lab for testing. He checked his phone for the time. 8:15.

“That’s odd,” he thought.

His phone had no service. Knauff suspected it was a temporary problem. His phone was very unreliable. He would have to track down his suspects in person, not that this was such a bad thing. Knauff had a knack for gathering vast amounts of information about someone before they even had a chance to speak. It scared him sometimes.

He walked to the office of Dr. Ann Murphy. Dr. Murphy was the professor who found Postema in the courtyard. She approached his bleeding body to see if he was ok, but when she touched him, he stiffly slumped over. There was no question about his condition, and in his now prone position several wounds were visible on his back.

Knauff speculated. Postema was found sitting on a bench where both doors were visible. Someone could have snuck up behind him and surprised him via the opening in the courtyard.

“I need more information,” he muttered to himself as he walked in to see a weeping mess of an instructor.

Knauff expected to have a hard time gleaning information, so he was surprised to hear about a secretive poker club called the PPOW. His mind drifted as he began to think of potential scenarios.

“…Dr. Sprow?” Knauff was shaken back to the land of the living by the inquisitiveness of Murphy’s voice.

“Sorry, could you repeat that?” he asked.

“I said I expect you’ll be wanting to get in touch with Dr. Bersett, Professor Garrison, and Dr. Sprow?”

According to Dr. Murphy, they were the only other known members of the club. Apparently, she found out about the members when an email was mistakenly delivered to her inbox. It was a memo from Postema, labeled for Bersett, Garrison, and Sprow. The memo read simply, “5 card stud Apr. 12. Usual place, usual time.”

“Interesting,” Knauff thought. At that moment he would have been willing to bet his entire life savings that the murder was connected to this memo. Then again, he hadn’t saved much.

Knauff thanked Murphy for the information and gave her his card. He walked briskly to the nearest pay phone and alerted the secretaries of the departments that he would need to speak with Bersett, Garrison, and Sprow immediately.

At 9:00 am sharp, Professor Garrison was the last of the suspects to enter the room. Knauff silently shut the door and smiled at the group as they nervously looked at each other.

“You need to tell me what’s going on here, now. I have no reservations about detaining each one of you for suspicion of murder if you don’t tell me exactly what is going on here,” Knauff said solemnly.

Garrison shifted in her seat.

“It’s just a poker club,” she cried. “Joel was kind of our unofficial leader. I hope you don’t think we had something to do with what happened…”

“So, what did happen last night?” Knauff asked.

Garrison was struck silent. Knauff wasn’t sure if it was because her fear had now turned to terror, or if she was just surprised by the bluntness of the question. He guessed the former. Finally, Bersett spoke up.

“It was just a typical game, you know? Joel doesn’t usually fare too well, but last night he mopped up. I lost $100 to him in the final hand of the night, but we all lost big. It was one hand among many,” he explained

His honesty piqued Knauff’s interest, but Knauff decided not to press the issue just yet. He turned to Sprow, who was sporting several red marks around his neck.

“Signs of a struggle?” Knauff wondered.

“Dr. Sprow, where were you at 10 o’clock last night?” Knauff asked.

“I was watching TV with my wife. She may have been taking a shower at that particular time but I’m sure she can substantiate my story,” he firmly replied.

His body language betrayed no sign of dishonesty. Knauff needed some time to think.

“I want all of you to stay in your offices for the rest of the day. I’m going to notify your secretaries that you are not to leave,” he said

After sending them away, Knauff bowed his head in thought. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d already solved the murder; he just had to work out the details. He looked at his phone. Still no service. Knauff walked to the nearest phone and dialed the number for the lab. Mallory Bugel picked up the phone on the second ring. She did it every time.

“New Wilmington Forensics Lab,” she chirped.

“Mallory, its Ben. Do you have any information for me?”

“This evidence is all pretty sketchy, Ben. There is a single fingerprint on the Jim Beam bottle, but I don’t think it’s going to tell us much. I had to fume it to get anything at all. I also ran IR and UV-Vis on the alcohol and soda. They’re both what they should be,” she replied

“Alright, thanks Mallory. My phone’s not getting any service so I’ll check in with you in an hour.”

Knauff was starting to sweat. He wondered if it was the rising heat or the pressure mounting on his shoulders. He walked back to the courtyard to look at the scene. Postema’s body had been removed, but traces of the spilled blood were a grisly reminder of the horrific tragedy. It didn’t take long for Knauff to decide he would really be more comfortable somewhere else. He decided to walk to Bersett’s office so he could begin asking questions individually.

Knauff walked into Bersett’s office to see him rummaging around through his desk.

“Missing something?” he asked.

“Um, well, I thought I had a bottle of Jim Beam in here, you know, for safekeeping.” Bersett sheepishly replied.

“Funny. Dr. Bersett…” Knauff began. “I’ve got to be honest with you. You are pretty high on my list of suspects right now. Is there anything you can tell me about your crones that might help me out?”

“I am not a murderer!” was Bersett’s red-faced reply. “And if you think I’m going to implicate my friends, you can forget it. Anyway, I was at a concert last night after our get-together. Lots of people saw me there.”

Knauff was a little taken back by Bersett’s flaring temper. Why would he be so aggressive if he had nothing to hide? Knauff decided it was probably best to let things cool down. He took a phone number for someone who could corroborate Bersett’s story and stepped out of the office.

Knauff again checked his phone.

“Finally!” he said to himself.

He now had a full four bars of service. As he smiled at his phone it began to vibrate. Incoming call.

“Chief Inspector Knauff,” he said.

“Knauff! Stop calling yourself that. You’re the only friggin’ inspector, and a lousy one at that!”

It was Lieutenant Davoli.

“Who do you think you are, investigating a murder with your phone off?” he continued.

Knauff rolled his eyes. Lieutenant Davoli had no respect for his capabilities as a detective.

“I didn’t have service. What’s the problem?” Knauff replied.

“You’re going to be working in food service if you continue this way. Where have you been?”

“Investigating the case, like any good detective would.”

On the other end of the phone line, Lieutenant Davoli was slamming his phone against his head. He took a while to reply.

“You moron. Dr. Sprow came to the police station with a confession over an hour ago. Have you been badgering suspects all morning?”

“Well…” Knauff stammered

“Sprow’s wife was angry with him for losing so much money. She choked him until he told her he would kill the man responsible. He snuck up behind Postema as he was sitting in the courtyard and stabbed him in the back. Then he planted a bottle of Jim Beam to implicate Bersett. We checked, and what we could glean from the fingerprint on the bottle matched Sprow’s right thumb. Case closed. Come back to the station. I’ve got some papers for you to fill out. God knows you can’t do anything else right.”

Knauff thought he could hear the phone being slammed onto the hook. It was probably just his imagination.

“Ah,” Knauff thought. “Another day, another mystery solved.”

He couldn’t help being a little disappointed, but his mind was at ease. He would get his chance. He could feel it. Knauff walked off in the relentless sunlight of a spring afternoon.