Niceville, by Carsten Stroud

Was there ever a town as misnamed as Niceville?

13151175After a prologue in which a boy vanishes into thin air on a town street, Carsten Stroud’s Niceville opens on a very busy summer day. A bank robbery leaves three police officers, a journalist, and a helicopter pilot dead. A high-tech and experimental GPS goes missing. A man experiments with revenge. An old woman and her gardener disappear. As Niceville goes on, the plots don’t so much converge as tangle together. It’s a smallish city, after all, and it seems like everyone is connected to someone with a gun or a grudge.

Stroud tells his story by bouncing between narrators, but the book mostly revolves around CID detective Nick Kavanagh and would-be bank robber Merle Zane. But there are many more narrators. The first big event is the bank robbery. We know who the robbers are right off the bat; in fact, Stroud lets them tell their own story. They’re a trio of double-crossers who are waiting for their moment. Kavanagh doesn’t get the case, since the bank was a federal one. Instead, he’s assigned to investigate the very strange disappearances. It doesn’t take long to work out that there’s something supernatural going on in Niceville. Merle, the getaway driver, lands right in the middle of it after one of his so-called partners shoots him in the back. He finds himself helping a women living on a curiously antiquated farm get revenge on the man who ruined her sister. Meanwhile, the would-be revenger is complicating the already complicated situation by leaking secrets in an effort to learn how to ruin lives.

As I read it, wondering how Stroud would pull all the various strands of plot together, I started to realized that I was reading something more like a twisted version of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Niceville isn’t a collection of short stories; it reads more like the collision of horror, mystery, and thriller novellas (Hence, the multiple tags). Pulling them apart even for a review is tricky. Because Niceville is relatively small and because the characters are fairly connected, a little bit of investigation and logic send the robbers after the idiot revenger while the FBI and others are after them. So many people are chasing each other that a horse race reporter calling out their positions wouldn’t be out of place. And underneath it all, there is some malevolent force at work with hardly anyone noticing, something that’s been there for a very long time.

I’m sure my description of the book is fairly muddled. I don’t meant it to be and I hope I’m not putting off potential readers. I was highly entertained by Niceville. The heroes and anti-heroes are fun to watch. The villains get pounded on in a satisfying way. The dialog is sharp and witty. The structure of the book is original and strange. A sequel, The Homecoming, was released just this year. I want to read it because I want to know more about what’s really going on, behind all the mayhem, in Niceville.

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