Tag Archives: Stephen King

Carsten Stroud’s Niceville Trilogy Stephen King-esque

nicevilleI’ve been spending every spare moment over the last week reading Carsten Stroud‘s Niceville trilogy.  That is, Niceville, The Homecoming, and The Reckoning.  If you loved Stephen King‘s The Stand, The Dead Zone, Salem’s Lot and Joyland, you’ll be a fan of Carsten Stroud.

Niceville seems to be a nice enough town, founded by just four families, who continue to have an oversized influence on the town today.  On the outskirts is Crater Sink, a natural attraction that is anything but attractive.  Over the years, it’s become apparent to some that Niceville has an abnormally high rate of stranger abductions – about two a year of unsolved, mysterious disappearances.  (And getting too close to the answer may make your own mysterious disappearance more likely!)

homecomingNiceville kicks off with one such disappearance, a boy named Rainey Teague, who seems to vaporize right off the street while looking into an old mirror in the window of the local pawn shop.  He turns up eventually, rescued months later from an undisturbed, well-buried grave by former Special Forces vet Nick Kavanaugh.  Nick’s married to a founding family descendant, family lawyer Kate Walker.  Where was Rainey in the intervening months?  Nobody knows.

Up till then, Niceville’s been pretty boring, in Nick’s estimation.  But the mystery surrounding Rainey Teague is just the tip of the iceberg.  By the end of the series, readers have been sucked into a world where death doesn’t always equal being dead, where the here-and-now and the long-past flow together, where good people die for bad reasons, and where criminal cops can cold-heartedly blow away innocent colleagues and still live up to a code of honor.

reckoningNot surprising for a three-book series, there’s a lot of plot.  It is large, and has many branches, but is not convoluted, so the reader is always well-grounded.  It helps that the books are populated with nicely drawn, well-differentiated and memorable characters.  Even the scary ones have good reasons for being scary, and there is only one who is truly evil.  (He gets his comeuppance, but I am sure I am not the only one who thinks that we have not seem the last of him.)  Stroud has a sure hand with suspense, frequently ending a chapter with a cliffhanger while he moves on to a different plot thread in the next chapter.

Also good, from my perspective:  he does not go over the top with the supernatural.  Sure, dead folks are walking around, interacting with the living like they’re not dead.  But Stroud handles it so naturally, that even before we know why this happens, readers accept it.  And sure enough, there are rules to this world of Niceville’s.  And the reader is rooting for the good guys.

All in all, big thumbs up for all three books.  Read them in order and enjoy.  Halloween is almost upon us, so ’tis the season!

Finders Keepers the Follow-up to Edgar-Winning Mr. Mercedes

KingI blew it this year by not calling the Edgar for Best Novel for Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, but instead ranking it #2 while bestowing the Literary Lunchbox Edgar on Mo Hayder’s Wolf.  (Check it out here.)  Still, I loved the book and was definitely looking forward to #2 in the planned trilogy, Finders Keepers.

findersAnd friends, it is now here.  It’s got all the good stuff that the best King novels have... plotting, pacing, suspense, and wonderful characters.  Still, it definitely feels like King is counting on our patience… particularly since Bill Hodges, our hero and the guy we are most interested in seeing, doesn’t show up until roughly halfway through Finders Keepers.  Nor do Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson (Aspy-challenged savant and bright black teen with a twisted sense of humor).  ‘

This is risky, because how does King know that we’ll put up with 147 pages of what is essentially backstory?  But what a backstory!  Picture this:  obsessed fan talks two buddies into robbing the home of a famous, reclusive author.  (Think JD Salinger with a twist of John Updike.)   Author ends up dead, fan and buddies get away with a bunch of unpublished manuscripts and a pile of cash.  No surprise, fan kills partners… but then goes to prison for a very long time for an unrelated crime.  Oh, and did I say it’s 1978?

Flash forward to 2010, when teenage Pete Sauber – who is super-smart but also pretty dorky – discovers the fan’s cache.  His parents are having serious money problems, as his dad was one of the unemployed job fair hopefuls who got run over by Mr. Mercedes in King’s previous book.  Pete quickly decides to send $500/month in cash to his parents, who conveniently and understandably decide that there is a benefactor out there trying to make life better for the Mercedes killer’s victims.  (Which is sort of true.)

Of course, you can see where this is going.  Right about the time the money runs out, the fan gets out of jail and the two – elderly bad guy and teenage dork – are on a collision course that is not likely to end well.  Fortunately, Pete ends up with an ace in the hole.  That’s right, Bill.  Plus Holly and Jerome.

It’s a pretty wild ride.  As with Mr. Mercedes, there’s a lot of tension and quite a few bodies along the way.  There’s also great pacing, some new and believable characters, and interesting character development, as Bill grapples with his responsibility for Janey’s death, Holly has become more independent, and Jerome is now a Harvard man.

The stand-off at the end, as the fan (Morris Bellamy) threatens to shoot Pete’s little sister, while Pete threatens to set  the author’s manuscripts on fire, is a nail-biter.  I won’t spoil it for you, except to reassure you that Bill Hodges is a hero.

I predict great things for this Stephen King.  He may be a newbie at detective fiction, but he’s got what it takes.

Congrats to Edgar recipients Jim Klise, Tom Bouman and Stephen King!

EdgarsSo, I’m feeling pretty smug – I may not have batted 1000 on my Edgar rankings this year, but it was pretty dang close.   I called it 100% one time, been completely wrong once, and otherwise tend to get one right and the other one wrong.  Since I’m not actually trying to predict the outcome, but to review and rank by my own standards (I’m not actually sure what standards the Edgars judges actually use!), it’s not surprising that I am not in perfect alignment.  Still, MWA and Literary Lunchbox agree way more often than random chance would dictate.

secretsFirst up, kudos to ADA pal and FB friend Jim Klise, whose young adult mystery The Art of Secrets took home an Edgar.  I read The Art of Secrets and enjoyed it very much!  Not in middle school?  Read it anyway!

bonesMy call for Best First Novel was Tom Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley.  An assured debut, it stood out for me among the other worthy nominees.  And indeed, it won the Edgar.  My good friend Addy Whitehouse reviewed this category as well – her call was The Life We Bury.  I enjoyed that book, but it wasn’t my favorite.

mercedeAnd you all know just how difficult the call was for Best Novel this year.  Of the six nominees, I truly felt that five of them were 5-star books.  Ultimately, I gave Mo Hayder’s Wolf the nod because it was a more complex narrative, in my estimation, than Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes.  I ranked that #2, and dang it, Mr. King’s Mr. Mercedes took home the Edgar.  Still, if this were horseshoes, I’d be the big winner.

The Edgar excitement is all over for another year!   Colleagues in my workplace find it all super-geeky, but hey, geek is chic.

Mo Hayder’s Wolf the final nominee for MWA Best Novel Edgar

wolfLunchbox regulars know that there are a few favorite authors that I buy in hardback, recommend wholeheartedly, and await with anticipation their next novel.  Back in the day it was Dick Francis, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and John Grisham.  Currently, it’s Ian Rankin, Laura Lippmann, Michael Connelly, Louise Penny, William Kent Krueger and Mo Hayder.   It was a wonderful day when I discovered Mo Hayder’s Gone – not to mention her entire back catalog – and I marveled at her ability to create suspense and surprise.  As an aspiring writer myself, reading Gone was like a master lesson in craft.  It deserved and won the Edgar for Best Novel in 2012.

No surprise to me –  Mo Hayder has penned another masterclass of a thrilling detective story with Wolf.  If anything the plot is even more knotty than Gone, and there’s no cheating.  Reading Wolf the third time through to review it for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel, I was able to note all the clues that I should have been picking up on were right there in front of me.

There are two plot threads. In the first, a wealthy family – the Anchor-Ferrars – are settling into their comfortable vacation home when they’re visited by two policemen, DI Honey and DS Molina.  Fifteen years previously, a teenage couple had been brutally murdered just a short distance away.  The killer disemboweled them both and strung their intestines, shaped into a heart, in the trees above them.  Now it appears that a second, similar murder has taken place, and the family is stricken to learn that their safety is at risk.  And it certainly is, for we soon realize that the policemen are not policemen at all, but have been hired to terrorize the family in order to suppress the publication of Oliver Anchor-Ferrars’ memoirs.  Although he’s now in his mid-60s and recovering from open-heart surgery, Oliver Anchor-Ferrars is a much harder and smarter man than he appears.  Over the four days of their captivity, Oliver deduces the truth and leaves a hidden message for the police detective he anticipates will be responsible for solving the crime.

The second thread is DI Jack Caffery’s lifelong search for the truth about the abduction and presumed sexual assault and murder of his 9-year-old brother, Ewan.  The Caffery family lived just steps away from a known pedophile, and Jack has spent decades trying to discover what happened to his brother and to find his body.  He’s similar, in that respect, to Hayder’s continuing character known as the walking man.  The walking man is a homeless itinerant, but highly intelligent and educated man, whose daughter was abducted.  He searches as he walks, seeking her body, and sometimes shares information with Jack.  And sometimes he doesn’t.

The threads come together through coincidence, or as the walking man would have it, fate.   For the only hope for rescue of the Anchor-Ferrars family rests in the speedy exit of their Border terrier, Bear.  A note reading “Help Us,” and including their address, was attached to Bear’s collar by Mrs. Anchor-Ferrars, who then threw the dog down the fireplace chimney.  Injured and with most of the note missing, Bear is discovered by a little blonde girl – Amy – in the nearby park who turns to none other than the walking man for help.  And the walking man turns to Jack, dangling the potential of information about Ewan from a new source as his incentive to track down Bear’s owners.

And thus does Jack Caffery begin his search, even as Honey and Molina are inflicting mental torture and physical abuse on the family.  It’s a long and complicated process, and Jack prevails in bringing all the perpetrators to justice, although the day is not entirely saved.  (I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers.)

Mo Hayder has written a perfect Rubik’s cube of a puzzle, where all the pieces slot perfectly into place but there’s a lot of looking at things in new ways to make them do so.  At the same time, the characters are simply the most well-drawn and compelling characters – good guys, bad guys, and minor walk-ons alike – that I have seen in … well, forever, really.  The book itself is painful at many points and the resolution of the mystery of Jack’s brother Ewan is surprising, ironic, and completely in keeping with the synchronicity of life’s events.

So, there’s the review – but what about the ranking?  The #1 ranked novel, Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, is an excellent book and I look forward to more from Bill Hodges.  But Mo Hayder’s Wolf is a deeper experience all together – it takes the top spot.   I forecast Wolf as the big winner at the Edgar Awards ceremony this week.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Wolf by Mo Hayder
  2. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
  3. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  4. The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
  5. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
  6. This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

The Mystery Writers of America Edgars Banquet is Wednesday, April 29.  That night, the winners of the Best Novel and Best First Novel awards will be announced, among others.  My former colleague Jim Klise is up for an Edgar for his YA novel, The Art of Secrets.  (Good luck, Jim!)  We’ll see if he prevails, and if my calls of Mo Hayder’s Wolf and Tim Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley are on the money.

Mr. Mercedes enters Edgar ranking for Best Novel

mercedeIn the immortal words of Bart Simpson:  Ay, carumba.

My reading, reviewing and ranking is running out of time, with just three of the nominees for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel checked off… and they are neck and neck and neck, to boot.

It’s not getting any easier.  As the clock ticks down to Wednesday’s big reveal at the Edgars Banquet in NYC, Stephen King – master of the horror genre among other literary achievements – is now on board with his detective novel, Mr. Mercedes.  It’s a classic for the genre, but feels fresh, thanks to King’s spin.

The book opens with the victims.  Down-on-his-luck Augie Odenkirk has queued up late one evening for a jobs fair that doesn’t open till the next morning… but he’s bound and determined to be one of the lucky ones.  He’s in line next to the even sadder Janice Cray and her baby.  The crowd swells.  And then the artful King begins to build suspense with an outcry from the within the mob, identifying the source of the voice as  “… Keith Frias, whose left arm would shortly be torn from his body.”  Indeed it would, by the madman driving a stolen gray Mercedes. And this is King’s strength – to portray a scene, a short scene, really, and introduce the people there and make the reader care about Augie and Janice and her baby Patti, and then to drop inescapable horror into the midst of them.   Thus is our killer introduced – through his impact on his victims.

Now fast forward to retired Detective Bill Hodges.  He and his partner Pete had tried and failed to apprehend Mr. Mercedes.   The crime scene reveals the bad guy to be smart and evil, with a wickedly twisted sense of humor.  Hodges is the classic washed-up detective, lonely, overweight, watching too much TV and eyeing his gun, haunted by crimes unsolved.  The bright spot in his life is not friends or family, but Jerome, the African-American teen who cuts his lawn.

Then one day Hodges receives a letter from Mr. Mercedes, taunting him and suggesting that Hodges would be better off dead.   But instead of feeding Hodges’ sense of failure, the letter intrigues him.  We see the detective Hodges had been:  a smart and intuitive problem-solver.  And thus begins the cat and mouse game.  But who is the cat?  And who is the mouse?

King reveals the identity of Mr. Mercedes early on, and Brady Hartsfield is truly sick (in both senses of the word).   Brady works by day at a discount computer store “geek squad,”  drives an ice cream truck in the afternoon and spends his evenings in a basement lair filled with explosives and computer gadgetry.  He’s a 28-year old virgin (unless you count the many times his mom has helped ease his “headache” by fondling something a little farther south) who killed his little brother, murdered eight people and maimed countless more with a stolen car, drove the car’s owner to suicide, and is entertaining himself by doing the same to Det. Hodges prior to committing some final unspecified heinous suicidal act of mayhem.

King stays true to the genre as Hodges decides to solve the crime himself, enlists his Harvard-bound lawn boy as his new partner, taps into his contacts for intel, and starts hitting the streets even as he engages Brady in an online private chat room.   The only thing missing is the love interest… oh, wait, here she is!  Janey Patterson is the sister of the woman who owned the Mercedes Brady stole; the woman who killed herself out of guilt for leaving her keys in the car that was used in the vehicular massacre.  Or at least that’s what Bill Hodges thought at the time.  Now that he’s met Janey and gained a new perspective on her sister Olivia, he realizes that he and his partner jumped to the easy conclusion.  His regret only ramps up his determination to bring the killer to justice.

But enough synopsizing.  King’s writing is flawless, and he escalates the suspense masterfully.  There’s not a wasted paragraph nor clunky plot hole to be found.  (Unlike his recent Revival.  Enough said.)  The characters are great, particularly Janey’s cousin Holly, who starts out a compulsive, mother-pecked bundle of nerves and through sheer grit, becomes a hero.  Hodges’ rebirth into a man of action through the application of romance is a breath of fresh air.   Especially good news is that Mr. Mercedes is evidently the first book in a planned trilogy, so I’m looking forward to more of Hodges, Jerome and Holly.  (Next up:  Finders Keepers.)

How does King’s novel stack up against such stiff competition as Cop Town, The Final Silence, and Saints of the Shadow Bible?   No doubt about it – it’s #1.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
  2. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  3. The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
  4. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

Three quick mini-reviews

I’m about to start the Edgar countdown, but first, I have three quick reviews to do!

winterpeopleFirst up is Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People.  This supernatural thriller alternates between present day – when there are some mighty strange goings-on in West Hall, Vermont – and 1908, when Sara Harrison Shea’s beloved daughter Gertie dies, setting in place a chain of events that will literally never end.  It’s a zombie story with a twist.  Despite a plot hole or two, Winter People benefits from McMahon’s writing skill and you’ll be totally sucked in.  Like a little dark magic and horror in your mysteries?  This one’s for you.

revivalThe second is Stephen King’s Revival.  The book is in the tradition of Carrie, Cujo, and Pet Sematary, with a little Ray Bradbury thrown in.  Jamie Morton, young son of the local minister, meets the Rev. Charles Jacobs and his family.  There’s something special about Rev. Jacobs:  he believes he can harness the special electrical power of the soul to heal the afflicted.  The twist is: he can. After the death of his wife and child, the grief-wracked Rev. Jacobs moves on, the years pass, and Jamie grows up to be in a rock-and-roll band.  When they reconnect, sparks fly (literally) and its all eerie fun and games until Charlie Jacobs actually brings somebody back from the dead to learn the secrets of life after death… that’s on page 378.  King had me till then, but the rest of the book was all too graphic and over the top for me.

salvationThe final book is Salvation of a Saint, by Keigo Higashino.  Higashino’s debut novel, The Devotion of Suspect X, was an Edgar finalist in 2012 and I enjoyed it, ultimately ranking it in the middle of the nominees.  If Winter People has breathless pacing and Revival is old-style horror, Salvation is pure Sherlock Holmes-ian deduction.  Minimal drama, and what there is, is understated.  For people who like their mysteries cerebral, this puzzler’s a good one.

Quick Review: King’s Joyland a Sweet Read

joylandNot a lot of posts from me so far this summer, due to a hectic work schedule.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading!  (I skip sleep before I skip the printed word.)  And that means I have a lot of reviewing to do.  So let’s get started with Stephen King’s new novel, Joyland.

All I knew going in was that King chose Hard Case Crime –  retro and pulpy – as the publisher for the book.  So my expectation, especially given the book’s cover art, was for a lurid and gritty noir.  Instead, the book is a tender coming of age story.  It’s more Adventureland than Chinatown.

The premise:  College boy Devin Jones takes a job in the summer of 1973 at third-tier amusement park Joyland on a whim.  Years ago, a girl was murdered there, and it’s said that her ghost haunts the ride where she was killed.  King has a light touch with the paranormal in this book, and the focus is on Devin’s self-discovery and the relationships he builds, rather than on the hunt for the killer.   In the book’s satisfying resolution, the ghost is laid to rest and the murderer gets his comeuppance, and Devin has grown from a good-hearted boy into a sensitive man.  The framing device – that 60+ Devin is looking back on his past – is handled well and adds to the sense of nostalgia.

Compared to other Stephen King novels (for example, The Stand)  Joyland is a slim book.  It benefits greatly from the narrower focus.  No summer blockbuster, it’s a sweet read for a breezy backporch.