Carsten Stroud's Niceville is damn-good poolside reading. And, to be fair, it even makes a go at tackling that whole literary merit thing.
Falling categorically somewhere between a Stephen King offshoot and Southern Gothic pop fiction, Niceville is the tale of the titular town where things are eerily amiss behind the white-picket exterior. Stroud describes Niceville as "a calendar shot of prewar America" that has a "strange vibe going on, like there was some power running through it ... and this power wasn't a kindly one."
The mysterious events begin with a boy disappearing into thin air—as caught on security camera footage—on his way home from school. It's not exactly an out-of-place occurrence, as the abduction rate in Niceville is nine times higher than the national average.
The book hits a crescendo and starts its descent into chaotic evil when a trio of bank robbers butchers a squadron of cops and a news chopper over a bag of money. This is also where the characters get interesting. Despite everyone in Niceville having a shady past—even the protagonists—many of the book's dozen-or-so main players exude pure evil. The chief badass of these is Coker, described as "a silver-haired movie-star assassin." He's a more grizzled riff on George Clooney's character in The American, and a prime example of how Stroud's exploration into the recesses of human evil is harrowing, and unapologetically so.
Stroud’s imaginative knack for character description pops up in such instances as a judge, about to hand down a guilty verdict, entering a courtroom with "his robes swirling behind him like portents of doom." Then there's an elderly couple who are "as alike in appearance as hermaphroditic toads," or a cop who is "colder than outer space and crazier than a wolverine on meth."
The book, however, is not without the requisite camp and pulpy hyperbole that you’d expect from crime fiction. Police officers have names like Mavis Crossfire, Boot Jackson and Jimmy Candles. Actually, hardly anyone in the book has a name that doesn't elicit some sort of caricature. It’s where Stroud injects a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor into an otherwise bleak and gruesome narrative.
But sometimes Stroud's creative inclinations are head-scratching, if not downright racist. We are told that one character has "a fine-boned face with eyes as sea green as Lacy's and the same Chinese eyes." If you're wondering why a character's eyes are described twice in the same sentence, it might be because Stroud has the unfortunate amateur tendency of over-describing people's eyes. Come to think of it, there are several characters in Niceville that have "Chinese eyes." And at least three of them aren't Chinese.
There's also a seedy Asian mafia character who has "narrow wrinkled eyes as black as buttons" and teeth that are "babyish, stained with tobacco, fencing off a fat white tongue that bobbed around inside the man's bloodred mouth like a moray in a cave." It doesn't help that one of the main characters is constantly referring to his nemeses as "wily fucking Asiatics."
Anomalies aside, Niceville outdoes your average crime-horror novel by a long shot. Stroud's exploration of the mysterious evil that plagues the town results in a rarely seen blend of pulpy crime fiction and a mostly successful stab at legitimate creative writing. The net of characters is cast a bit wide, but Stroud gets away with it because of his ability to flesh each one out vividly. And in a genre where the payoff is just as important as any element in a book, it's refreshing to see some of the bad guys get away and some of the loose ends left, naturally, a little loose.
You'll probably be tanned beyond recognition before finishing this nearly 400-page monster, but for the most part, it’ll be time on the lawn chair well spent.