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Joyland by Stephen King

First the disclaimer: I am not a Stephen King fan, and that’s mainly because I’m not a reader of horror fiction, but Joyland is a Hard Case Crime title, and I’m Hard Case fan. I mention not being a Stephen King fan because he is a popular author and while I’m sure that Joyland is going to attract new readers, I can’t say how this book compares to his other work. While I’d never read a Stephen King novel, I’ll admit to a mild curiosity due to the fact that I have watched and enjoyed a number of films based on his work. The films I’ve seen frequently explore the themes of innocence vs evil, youth and the loss of innocence, the layers beneath small town American life, and, all this of course, often laced with the supernatural.

JoylandJoyland is narrated by a man in his 60s who recalls events that took place forty years earlier. There’s a great deal of nostalgia in the telling of this tale–not just for lost youth, but also for lost love, lost ideals, and even for a lost America. This is a quintessential American novel, and by that I mean that you can’t read it and imagine that it is taking place anywhere else. At the same time, King presents an America that never really existed. The story is set in a small seaside town called Heaven’s Bay. It’s 1973 and 21-year-old virgin, Devin Jones, takes a job working at a carnival, Joyland for the summer:

1973 was the year of the OPEC oil embargo, the year Richard Nixon announced he was not a crook, the year Edwin G. Robinson and Noel Coward died.

See what I mean about the nostalgia? It’s hard these days to imagine a time when anyone imagined that politicians were anything other than ____, ____, _____, ____ (fill in the blanks), but back in the day, a number of people were genuinely shocked about Watergate. Notice how the author weaves in several issues is that little sentence: petrol rationing, concerns about energy, unrest in the Middle East, political crookery, and rather interestingly, the death of one of the acting greats who immortalized the portrayal of gangsters on the screen.

So our protagonist, Devin, separated from his long-time girlfriend for the summer, takes a job at Joyland–a low rent seaside carnival, owned by an old-school idealistic owner who believes in treating his employees and customers well, and here’s his pep talk for employees:

This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. Those of you who don’t already know that will come to know it. Given such sad but undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun. In exchange for the hard-earned dollars of your customers, you will parcel out happiness. Children will go home and dream of what they saw here and what they did here.

King is not a subtle writer, but then again I think many of the moves he makes here are very deliberate. The place names are so obvious, you trip over them: Joyland, Heaven’s  Bay, Heaven Beach, but these very obvious elements to the story are matched by elements that are not so screamingly obvious. The carnival workers, for example, are a motley bunch, and no one seems to be quite who they say they are.

Devin, that clean-cut American boy, so clean-cut that he’s a virgin and drinks milk, takes a room at  Mrs Shoplaw’s Beachside Accomodations. She’s an interesting woman who is generous, kind, and welcoming to her summer lodgers–again there’s that sense of a world that doesn’t exist. It’s Mrs. Shoplaw who tells Devin about the ghost that haunts Joyland’s Horror House, the ghost of a girl who was brutally murdered on the ride–her throat slit and her body dumped beside the tracks. The murder was never solved. There’s  something very innocent about Devin, and sometimes innocence is a protection and at other times it’s a liability. Devin, of course, becomes involved in the old murder case while also losing that innocence and finally accepting some truths about his life.

Joyland is an unusual title for Hard Case Crime. It’s not hard-boiled, but crimes are committed, and because this is, after all, Stephen King, there’s a supernatural element to the tale. I’ve read reviews of the book that call it a masterpiece, and while I wouldn’t go that far, nonetheless, I’m glad I read it. After watching many Stephen King film adaptations, Joyland is about what I expected with its theme of the power of the good against the power of evil. The transition to adulthood is a dodgy period in which an individual can make any number of bad choices, but in Devin’s case, he repeatedly does good deeds and takes a definite stand against evil. The penultimate scene is presaged by Devin’s actions within the park, and incidents in which he doesn’t think, he acts. Each of these incidents are seemingly unconnected, but in reality, in a mystical sort of way, Devin is repeatedly tested by fate and with each incident, his aura of goodness strengthens for the moment of his final battle. As odd as this may sound, I thought about King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table and how the knights had to sally forth on quests that basically became the moral measure of each man. The story’s nostalgia is nicely conveyed with Devin still not quite come to terms with the people he met and lost, so consequently the story is laced with a patina of loss and sadness.

Review copy.

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The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook

“The road to moral horror is never direct. There are always ramps and stairs, corridors, and tunnels, the secret chamber forever concealed from those who would be appalled by what they found there.”

I get a lot of snooty looks when people ask me what I am reading and I reply ‘crime fiction.’ That’s not the only type of novel I read, but it seems inevitable that I have a crime novel in my hand when someone asks me that question. I also get a range of snotty replies which range from: “oh … I don’t like wasting my time on that sort of book,” (like I’m reading porno) to “You should read something worthwhile. I wouldn’t waste my time on something like that.” Whatever. Up Yours. I read what I want to read.

But once in a while, I come across a fellow crime reader and we have a nice little chat about our favourite sort of crime novels. After all, there’s no such thing as an ‘average’ crime novel–that’s a huge umbrella term. Crime novels run the gamut from cozies set in picturesque, quaint English villages to very violent, heavily detailed novels about predators and their sick pastimes. I don’t care for cozy mysteries but neither do I like to wallow in torture details. Give me a crime novel that teaches me something and stretches the genre into something special, and that brings me to The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook. Is this a crime novel? Well the word is in the title, so crime is definitely part of the equation, but the novel is much, much more than that. It’s also an exploration of the nature of guilt, and on a larger scale, a treatise on the basest aspects of human nature. Thomas H. Cook has a reputation for writing cerebral crime novels with a strong psychological component, and that description is certainly well-deserved in The Crime of Julian Wells.

The book begins with the suicide of middle-aged American author Julian Wells. He leaves no note–no clues as to why he chose to kill himself on this day, in this fashion, and as is usually the case with suicides, family and friends are left to put together the pieces as they try to understand what happened and whether or not they failed in some way.

Julian, a writer with a respectable reputation occasionally lived at Montauk with his widowed sister, Loretta. The rest of the time, he spent either travelling the world researching his non-fiction books and articles or writing in a rented garret in Pigalle. Loretta, and Julian’s friend, literary critic Philip are the two people Julian left behind. After talking about Julian’s last weeks, Loretta and Philip identify a few peculiarities in his behaviour: a cancelled trip, unusual agitation, and a circled place on a map–the Argentinian village of Clara Vista right next to the border with Paraguay. Stunned by Julian’s death, Philip begins to question all of his memories and conversations with Julian. He is drawn to solving the mystery behind Julian’s suicide which he begins to believe is somehow connected to a month-long trip the two men took to Argentina thirty years previously.

Philip questions whether Julian committed suicide due to his prolonged exposure to depressing subjects. After all, he’d spent a lifetime delving into the darkest deeds of humankind.  With each book, Julian immersed himself in the crimes under consideration, and according to Loretta, “he was like a man in a locked room, trying to get out.”  Julian’s books never followed a template. His first book was The Tortures of Cuenca (about afabled injusticethat took place in Spain 1911), and there was also a study of Gille de Rais, The Terror, and a book about the crimes of Countess Bathory, The Tigress. Julian also wrote about serial killer, Henri Landru, the crimes of Paul Voulet, and the horrendous massacre at Oradour in 1944. Julian’s latest book, six years in the making and to be published posthumously, is The Commissar, the story of Russian serial killer Chikatilo. Loretta feels Julian’s constant exposure to some of the worst human behaviour cost her brother dearly and that “each book was like a nail in his coffin.” And our narrator agrees:

I thought of how he’d spent his last six years following the Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo’s path through countless dismal towns, sleeping in the same railway stations, eating black bread and cheese, eying the vagabond children who had been Chikatilo’s prey, becoming him, as Julian always seemed to do while writing about such villains.

Philip’s father, a retired state department official, doesn’t believe that Julian was ‘tainted’ by his work, but rather that he had “morbid” tendencies. Was Julian’s suicide the result of 30 years of researching the lives of psychopaths and their victims? In the end, was all that darkness too much for Julian to absorb? Or was there something behind Julian’s obsession with the many faces of evil and his very particular interest in disguise and deceit? There seemed to be some desperate need behind Julian’s work to explore and understand cruelty that had nothing to do with his writing career or selling novels. Julian’s work seemed integral to his character: 

The deeds that drew him were the darkest that we know, and he’d pursued them with the urgency of a lover.

The Crime of Julian Wells takes us to Pigalle, London, Moscow, and Argentina as Philip retraces Julian’s career, but all roads lead back to Argentina and Philip and Julian’s vacation during the years of that country’s Dirty War. Along the way, we meet some very Graham Greenesque characters from Julian’s shady underworld: a hearty but suspicious former KGB agent, and René, Julian’s liason in France.

The Crime of Julian Wells narrowly misses being sublime, and its one, fault, and I hesitate to write that word as I enjoyed the novel a great deal, can be found in the character of Philip. He’s Julian’s doppelgänger, and yet he’s also a blank slate in many ways. While he’s necessary to the plot’s structure and revelations, he’s not that interesting a character in his own right, and so he acts as a device that folds back the layers of the past. In spite of this, The Crime of Julian Wells is a wonderful crime novel for many reasons. For all the anti-crime novel snobs out there, with allusions to Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, author Thomas H. Cook shows just how serious and philosophical a crime novel can be. The characters aren’t solving crimes as much as they try to find the answers to haunting questions concerning the nature of guilt, the utter randomness of cruelty, how some people can sleep well, eat, and laugh after horrendous acts of cruelty while others can never expiate their guilt, and how easy it is for someone to simply disappear….

For here was Julian’s sense of life’s cruel randomness, life a lottery upon whose uncontrollable outcome everything depended, how because this streetcar stopped on this particular corner at this particular moment, nothing for this particular human being would ever be the same again.

Review copy.

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The Retribution by Val McDermid

“I won’t deny that the people who do this kind of thing fascinate me. The more disturbed they are, the more I want to figure out what makes them tick.”

I’ve been reading Val McDermid for several years now, and that makes me a fan. I first came across this versatile author through the book The Mermaids Singing which was, as it turned out, the first in a new series. This series teamed together psychologist Tony Hill with DI Carol Jordan, and these books then formed the basis for a television series, Wire in the Blood. I use the term versatile when describing McDermid because while she’s a prolific writer who sticks to crime, she’s capable of seismic shifts while still keeping within the perimeters of the genre. She’s written a number of stand-alone psychological novels ( A Darker Domain, A Place of Execution) which are comparable to the best psychological novels written by Ruth Rendell, and in 2011 she wrote the crime novel Trick of the Dark which featured a lesbian detective. This novel that may well herald a new series character. There’s also the Kate Brannigan seriesa series which features a Manchester PI –much lighter fare for McDermid, and the Lindsay Gordon series. It’s all a matter of taste of course, but I think McDermid’s stand-alone psychological crime novels are her finest work.

The Retribution is the seventh novel in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. Since a series detective novel covers the personal life of its main character(s), The Retribution is no exception. Life is marching on for both Carol and Tony. She has just taken a new job in West Mercia and so she’s on the verge of moving out of Bradford when two things stop her in her tracks:

1) A serial killer stalks the streets of Bradford picking up prostitutes, torturing and killing them

2) The bold prison escape of Jacko Vance who’s hell-bent on revenge against Tony and Carol.

Jacko Vance appeared in the second novel in the Hill/Jordan series, Wire in the Blood. While he savagely murdered seventeen teenage girls and a police officer, only one charge stuck, but it’s a life sentence, nonetheless. The novel begins with Jacko Vance’s intricate escape plan from the lower security prison he’s managed to fanangle his way into, and then smoothly segues into the discovery of the corpse of the third victim of Bradford’s newest serial killer.

The novel includes tidbits of forensic information for crime groupies as well as revealing the complexities of the inner-thoughts of two homicidal maniacs. Jacko Vance is a good-looking, manipulative former TV personality who was at one time an athlete until an accident left him with just one arm. Vance is also extremely intelligent:

Escapology was like magic. The secret lay in misdirection. Some escapes were accomplished by creating an illusion through careful planning; others were genuine feats of strength, daring and flexibility, both mental and physical; and some were mixtures of both. But whatever the methods, the element of misdirection always played a crucial role. And when it came to misdirection, he called no man his master.

Best of all was the misdirection that the onlooker didn’t even know was happening. To accomplish that you had to make your diversion blend into the spectrum of normal.

Makes me think of the way Ted Bundy wore a fake sling or a cast in order to sway his victims into seeing him as potentially harmless and in need of help.

 As an evil creation, Jacko Vance strains the bounds of believability at times. This is always a danger when writing this type of novel, and while serial killers can be brilliant, cunning, and athletic all in one, at times Jacko seems more suited for an X-man villain than anything else. While The Retribution is a page-turner, no argument here, the details are gruesome. The novel is certainly concerned with the why, but the how also plays no small role. The term ‘crime novel’ covers such a vast range of material, and those who like cozies will keel over if they read this. No comforting tea and crumpets, no bloodless crimes that occur off the page. Some pages are like reading a crime scene report, so be prepared.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley.

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Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Occupied Paris by David King

The soldier remembered one conversation about the morality of theft, Petiot arguing that it was perfectly natural:

 “How do you think that the great fortunes and colonies have been made? By theft, war, and conquest.”

“Then morality does not exist?”

“No,” Petiot answered, “it is the law of the jungle, always. Morality has been created for those who possess so that you do not retake the things gained from their own rapines.”

A few years ago, I came across the French film Doctor Petiot. I’d never heard of this man before, but after watching the film, I knew I’d never forget him. I also vowed that one day I’d read a non-fiction account of Petiot and his crimes. Well ‘one day’ arrived recently with the publication of David King’s well-researched book, Death in the City of Light.

Death in the City of Light begins on March 11, 1944 with a fire at a house located at 21 Rue Le Soeur. To the numerous bystanders it appeared as though the house’s chimney was on fire. The fire department arrived on the scene, broke in and discovered a slaughter house with dismembered body parts strewn about the floor. But this was nothing compared to the contents of the basement: personal items which clearly belonged to dozens of people, jars filled with human genitals, a lime pit which contained even more body parts, and an ad-hoc surgery area for dismemberment, scalping, and the removal of internal organs. Obviously French police had a serial killer on their hands. Or did they?

Although it seems fairly clear-cut that the human remains found at the house at La Rue de Soeur were the result of a maniac, things immediately became murky. The house belonged to French physician, Marcel Petiot, a collector of fine art, a very wealthy man who also had a reputation for helping the poor and drug addicts. Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu of the Homicide Squad was in charge of the case (for Simenon fans, Massu served as inspiration for Inspector Maigret), and initially he suspected that the police had stumbled on a house used by the Gestapo. The La Soeur house was just around the corner from a Gestapo building and this combined with the flagrant brutality and sheer number of the victims made Gestapo involvement likely:

A swastika had flown over the building across from Petiot’s property. The garage at No. 22 had been appropriated by Albert Speer’s Organization Todt, a vast supply company that supervised German construction projects in Occupied Europe.

If the murders at Petiot’s house had indeed been committed by the Gestapo, this created a very delicate situation for Massu since “the French police, of course, had no authority over the Gestapo or any of its activities.” I’ve often thought that wartime creates a fertile opportunity to mask other crimes, and the possibilities expands exponentially with the idea of an occupation. The author takes the time to clarify both Massu’s uncertainty and the chaos of the times–people were disappearing daily. Some were swallowed up by prison, others were tortured and tossed out dead somewhere, and still others were shipped off to concentration camps. Massu’s initial feeling that Petiot’s building was a Gestapo torture house did not pan out, however, for a couple of reasons. Massu was not warned off of the investigation by the Gestapo, and there were no Gestapo personnel on site when the grisly discovery was made. Moreover, shortly after the fire began, a mystery man appeared on a bicycle. Grabbing the attention of the patrolmen, the mystery man said that the corpses inside the house “are the bodies of Germans and traitors to our country.” 

As Massu tries to capture Petiot and identify some of the remains in the La Soeur house, the question of whether or not Petiot was indeed an agent of the Gestapo or a member of the Resistance emerges repeatedly. Author David King takes both possible scenarios and deconstructs the myths which surround both stories. Tracing Petiot’s chequered career, a portrait of Petiot begins to emerge–a troubled childhood, “signs of imbalance,” various stays in mental asylums, a political career fraught with scandal, kleptomania and corruption, and also various charges that he supplied a legion of drug addicts with a steady supply. And then there are the many instances of people disappearing when they stood in Petiot’s way….

Author David King follows Massu’s investigation as he tries to discover just who Petiot really was, and the investigation, naturally, in the absence of the culprit, expands into the identity of the victims. Evidence mounts that Petiot claimed to run an underground railroad for wealthy Jews who were attempting to escape the Nazis, but the bones in the basement argue that these travellers arrived at Petiot’s home but did not leave. The case was further complicated by the fact that Petiot had been arrested and held by the Gestapo for a considerable number of months, and also by the fact that the Gestapo had tried to infiltrate the underground escape route by sending a young Jewish man, whose freedom had been bought by his family through bribes, into Petiot’s operation. Naturally he disappeared. King also throughly investigates Petiot’s possible ties to the Gestapo and also his relationship with the Carlingue. It’s quite a task to unravel all the possibilities here, but King does his job masterfully–tying in Petiot with the darkest segments of the Paris underworld.

While I throughly enjoyed the visually stunning film Dr. Petiot, the complexities of this case were largely absent, and the film portrayed Petiot as a maniac, who treated his patients for free, while luring wealthy Jews to their doom. Death in the City of Light makes it clear that Petiot, a dangerous chameleon, did not have a philanthropic bone in his sick little body, and that so-called free treatment was just a way of embezzling the state. Furthermore, the book explores the intricacies of Petiot’s relationship with Henri Lafont and the Carlingue, and this link certainly explains just why Petiot operated so freely for so long.  A large portion of the book concentrates on Petiot’s trial, and at this point, Petiot, who’d managed to hide some of his egomaniacal tendencies, went wild in the spotlight–even making anti-semitic slips at some points. The trial turned into a media and social event with many spectators enjoying Petiot’s performance, and the testimony was spiced up considerably by the appearance of Rudolphina Kahan who “looked like a spy on the Orient Express.” Petiot seemed to nurse a crush on this woman who served as one of his many scouts. Petiot’s show-off performance was reminiscent of the trial of Lacenaire, and there are indeed some similarities between the two men–although Petiot’s murderous rampage far exceeded Lacenaire’s.

The film portayed Petiot as a ghoulish figure who rode his bicycle through the streets of Paris at night, and physically the dark rings under Petiot’s eyes reminded me of Cesare from the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I was delighted to see this same connection made in the book by a journalist who attended the trial. Death in the City of Light includes many photographs, and Petiot really looks like a nut-job.

There are several names in the book: Adrian the Basque, Jo the Boxer, Henri Lafont, Pierre Bony, Francois the Corsican, Zé. I’m still looking for a book (in English) on the subject of the Carlingue, so if anyone knows a source, please let me know.

(my copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and read on my kindle)

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Filed under King David, Non Fiction