I don’t remember the first time I went to an amusement park, because I’ve lived around one all of my life, but I can imagine it was pretty magical. Kids go crazy for the rides and the games, the lights and the sounds, and the mascots – and in a way, you’re being transported to a new world where the theme of the day is always “fun.”
But how about if there was a murder there? What if the happy-go-lucky nature of the rides was tainted by a slit throat, an unsolved mystery, a blood-spattered corpse, and maybe even a ghost that haunts the premises? Maybe then that amusement park would hold a different connotation, one that caused parents to shiver as their kids happily boarded the rides, thinking, What if that had been my child?
This is basically the sinister premise cooked up by Stephen King for Joyland, except instead of a current amusement park we get a carnival of sorts in the ’70s. It allows King to delve into the past, to bring out all of those carny words he looked up in the carny dictionaries, to navigate around “DNA evidence” for a good old-fashioned mystery without scientific deduction. And it lets King do what he does best – tell a story wrapped around a character.
Joyland‘s main character, Devin, tells us the story of a summer/fall he spent working at an amusement park. Joyland’s a carny dream – large rides that don’t get torn down over the winter, games that aren’t rigged but aren’t easy winners either, and a mascot called Howie the Happy Hound that dances around the little kiddies and sweats buckets out of the costumed employee. But the park’s not all fun and games, even if it does masquerade as such; back in the day, a murder took place in Joyland’s dark ride, where a young girl was murdered and left on the ride while the killer got away.
It still hadn’t been solved when Devin begins work, and he’s not exactly thinking he’ll figure it out during his stay. But he takes an interest to carny life, and he gets more involved in the murder thanks to a gifted young boy named Michael. Eventually, the secrets of Joyland come to light.
King doesn’t normally cover mystery-noir novels like Joyland, but he’s done hardboiled crime before. This novel isn’t as noir-ish as it might seem; King replaces wordy ’40s lingo for carny talk, and he strips out the most intense elements of crime fiction. There’s not a whole lot of detective work in the book; Devin is a carny worker, after all, not a private eye. Instead, much of Joyland is centered around Devin as a person, his evolution from an angst-ridden teenage lover, and his work as a carny.
For a mystery novel, this focus might seem like a roller coaster that’s constantly running off the rails. While that’s certainly somewhat true – King’s lack of interest with the actual elements of the killing is off-putting for those expecting an in-depth mystery – for myself and many other readers, Devin’s metamorphosis thanks to Joyland is an equally satisfying experience.
That might be because I already have an affinity for carnival-themed stories, but it’s also due to King’s generous supply of detail throughout the novel. His penchant for crafting character-driven stories factors in here; Devin, as a character, is more interesting than Devin as a detective. The idea of the murder is really just framework, like the attractive lighting of a Ferris wheel: we’re drawn to the marvelous sights, but the real reason we’re there is for the ride.
With that said, it’s fair to say that the mystery King creates is glossed over throughout the book. The murder is brought up only a few times, and there’s very little legwork done by Devin himself. A full-fledged mystery Joyland isn’t, and if you’re expecting to be wowed by twists and turns throughout the investigation, this novel will most definitely let you down.
But King does provide an amusing romp through the life of a carnival worker, and even if the novel is lacking in crime substance, it provides a good amount of characterization in other areas. The book is short, too, and upon finishing I immediately wanted to spend more time in Joyland – maybe not solving cases, but just to stay on as a carny, jocking rides and spotting points and forgetting about the darker side of life. Except in the dark ride.