Palaver's Stephen King blog

Category: Bill Hodges Trilogy

End of Watch (2016)


Like the two preceding books in the Hodges trilogy, End of Watch begins on that fateful night in 2009 when “Mr Mercedes”, a young sociopath named Brady Hartsfield, kills a number of people using a stolen car. This time we join the proceedings in the company of two paramedics responding to the MCI call. They save the life of a seriously wounded woman named Martine Stover.

But as the new story skips to current day, Martine is dead. Like many others linked to Hartsfield. It’s almost as if he is still pushing people over the edge, even though he is in a clinic in a practically vegetative state.

Closure is the key term as detective Hodges and his partner Holly are forced to once more confront a murderous young man who, judging by all evidence, is incapable of doing anything at all. Following the continued evolution of the once isolated Holly is a treat. She is never smoothly confident, but has become sufficiently sure of herself to take control when needed. Evolving, if that’s the word, is also the murderous Brady Hartsfield, slowly coming out of a comatose state in a way reminiscent of King’s more supernaturally charged work. For Hodges, things seem to be turning bad health wise, just as he realises he still has some loose ends to tie up. His penchant for keeping secrets is a somewhat frustrating aspect of this book as well as the previous ones, but luckily, he can’t fool his friends for long.

Of the three Hodges books, this is the one most in line with what casual users might expect from King. With the focus on an outdated game console being used as part of an ambitious scheme it’s as much a techno thriller as a supernatural one. The combination of telekinesis, technology and the detective novel works surprisingly well, though. It’s a bold mix, but it’s presented in a matter of fact way that makes the concept strangely credible.

When the story picks up speed in a series of events and crises, it never actually slows down, but more focus than I would have preferred is placed on the details and minutae of Brady’s last scheme. Other themes include even less cheerful ones like suicide and cancer. But at heart, like so many of King’s stories, it’s also a tale of friendship. The finale, in keeping with the other two books, is tense and exciting and the epilogue is touching.

Summing up the series: once more exploring a new-ish format, King has again proven that he can write in any genre and style, and pull the reader in.

In a neat reference to Cujo, we learn that boy band ‘Round here were sometimes sponsored by Sharp Cereals.

Finders Keepers (2015)

“Shit don’t mean shit”

After a prologue set in the 1970s, Finders Keepers begins on the very same night as Mr Mercedes, with an out-of-work man queueing for a 2009 job fair which we know won’t happen. Because of ’Mr Mercedes’.

The storyline set in the past, where an elderly writer is assaulted in his home, has no immediately obvious bearing on this tragedy. In Morris Bellamy, the young literature fan who helms the crime, the book finds an equivalent to Brady in Mr Mercedes, though. Almost void of empathy and capable of horrific acts but with elements of humanity and a detached sense of dark humour. A creature not unlike Pinkie in Brighton Rock.

The threads converge when the boy in a problem-stricken family finds a strange treasure buried three decades ago. The problems are, of course, born of the 2009 vehicle attack. The seeming solution is a treasure buried after the assault on the writer. The boy, Pete, decides to use it to play the part of secret helper, bringing his family much needed relief. But the treasure is not confined to cash. There are notebooks as well. And for the ageing Morris, whose prison term (for an unrelated crime) is finally coming to an end, these are way more important.

King has tried many styles of writing and I like them all. That said, the sparse but vivid prose he employs in the ‘Hodges books’ is particularly great. He is always good with atmosphere and setting, but in these books he seems to take special delight in description, mixing the laconic tone of a hardboiled detective novel with vivid, often funny imagery.

“He spoke not in the tentative tenor of your usual adolescent, but in a confident, husky baritone that seemed far too big for the chicken chest lurking behind the purple rag of his tie.”

It’s also a book about reading and writing, topics famously dear to mr King, and through (among other things) a quirky literature teacher he seizes every opportunity to impart exhilarating wisdom on the subject. Two main characters, with wildly different temperaments but equally invested in the same writer, with occasionally parallel story arcs and even inhabiting the same house in different eras, represent two sides of the consummate Reader.

Fittingly, it’s a book that effortlessly keeps your interest, with comical details and small surprises tucked into the bigger narrative. With new and often sympathetic characters alongside familiar ones, all of them elegantly connected and with their part to play.

As for the returning characters, Bill Hodges may not be King’s most charismatic character to date, but it’s nice to see the evolution of Holly, the former ‘hikikomori’, whose quirks are fondly and funnily captured without a hint of mockery. Jerome is a good character but his antics as ‘Tyrone Feelgood’ exemplify an area where I feel King rarely excels: adding comedy through characters trying to be funny. Like Eddie in The Dark Tower, he’s best when he’s not joking around.

Even though the book spans less than 400 pages, King also manages to squeeze in a brutal, almost darkly comical version of The Shawshank Redemption.

Three quarters in, a quite extraordinary element is added to the mix. Something involving Brady Hartsfield. Something very King, yet, one thought, not to be expected in this book. But that’s just a brief interlude (or teaser of things to come) in a tale of obsession, good intentions gone bad and strange coincidences. With a finale almost as tense and twice as violent as that of Mr Mercedes.

And one heck of a spooky epilogue.

Mr Mercedes (2014)

“He leaves his house with no premonition that he won’t be back.”

The opening scene is great; vivid and deeply humane, where two lonesome, jobless people in recession America meet while waiting in line for a job expo. It’s depressing and heartfelt, almost political in a good way. Then disaster strikes. A man-made disaster, created on purpose with the aid of a stolen Mercedes.

Later, a retired homicide detective named Bill Hodges receives a chatty letter from the ‘perk’. Does he still wonder who did it? Trouble dealing with retired life? You bet …

The ‘perk’, surprisingly, is introduced as a character in his own right in the following chapter, rather than kept in the shadows. Over the course of a job conversation with a colleague we learn more about him than the letter revealed. Including the fact that he hates everyone but knows how to adapt.

Initial reaction: the focus on the woman who owned the car used for the murder slows down the proceedings. It later turns out that this focus is warranted, of course. Not least since her sister will become a major character.

A romance thriller, what was the odds of King writing one of those? Well, it’s more than that of course. The portrait of the killer is every bit as twisted as the love affair is cute, revealing a young man with no doubt serious issues but few redeeming qualities. And yet surprisingly human in some of his reactions.

It’s also sprinkled with technical info and computer tidbits that feel surprisingly up to date. King seems to have done some serious homework on this one.

A particularly shocking sequence around half-time extinguishes any “fears” that King is writing a normal thriller. A flat, laconic summary of a defining event in Brady’s life continues this trend. It’s a tough read, especially since Brady’s perspective includes a crass, sickening sort of jocularity.

The dark turn veers into a nose dive as things go from bad to worse. When a peek into Brady’s world view around three quarters in view sums up nihilism as well as anything you’ve ever read (history is aptly described as ‘scar tissue’), the romance detective novel association is just a vague memory, although the introduction of a psychologically challenged woman and her swift friendship with Hodges’s friend Jerome brighten up the proceedings somewhat.

The stakes are as high as in a “normal” thriller, though, and a race against time provides suspense to the very end. And by suspense I mean Suspense. This one nearly gave me a heart attack.

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