Mr. Mercedes, the first novel in Stephen King’s trilogy of books about retired policeman Bill Hodges, represented something wholly new in King’s career. It was basically a crime novel, one in which a retired cop does his best to track down a serial killer. And while the details of the book were unique, and the style unmistakably King’s, it felt like the master trying something new: telling a suspense story without any supernatural elements. It’s something he’s done now and then – most notably in Misery, which was originally going to be a Bachman book – but not often, and it was a joy to find him doing it so well.
Then came Finders Keepers, which felt even less traditional – a crime novel about a long-lost book, authorial intentions, and so much more. Finders Keepers was a blast – a complex crime story that kept you guessing and whose stakes were hard to put into simple words – and easily outdid Mr. Mercedes. And yet, there was one odd plot thread: the ongoing fate of Brady Hartsfield. Left alive but comatose at the end of Mr. Mercedes, Hartsfield spends his short appearances in Finders Keepers in a nursing home, by all accounts unaware of the world around him…except for the hints that he may be able to use his mind to move objects around him. It was an odd note in a series that had so tightly eschewed supernatural elements, and one that I found a bit sad – as though King was already backtracking on his choice to do something more grounded.
Now comes End of Watch, which follows that thread to its natural progression: Brady Hartsfield may be less than fully healed, but people around him keep killing themselves. And Bill Hodges is worried about it, no matter what Brady’s doctors say, because he’s got his own concerns about Brady, and the rumors of what he’s able to do with his mind.
Without getting into specifics, End of Watch embraces that uncertainty about Brady, but it’s clear before long that this is a marriage of the grounded crime work of the other two Hodges books and the supernatural elements that have driven so many of his books. And while it’s somewhat different from the books before it, it ends up feeling of a piece with the others – despite Brady’s powers, this is a detective book, even if it’s one in which the killer may be something more powerful than a traditional human. (It does make the book’s dedication to Thomas Harris a bit odd, though; if there’s a book in the series that should be dedicated to Harris, it’s the original Mr. Mercedes.)
Here’s the thing: I really liked End of Watch, on the whole. Hartsfield makes for a fascinating villain, and King’s slow unveiling of his recuperation and development since the end of Mr. Mercedes makes for compelling reading, and unsettling material. More than that, Brady’s obsession with suicide, and his apparent ability to drive people into it, makes for deeply disturbing scenes, ones where King is able to tap into real psychological horrors at the core of all of us. And while his master plan is silly in parts (especially in its theatricality, a fact the book is smart enough to own up to), King is more than able to deliver in specific moments that make you realize what a horrific creation Brady is.
And yet, not all of the book works. It’s the final book in the Hodges series, and parts feel a bit too final, as if King is forcing things along in a way that doesn’t quite feel organic. (This mainly comes in the form of some health issues for Hodges that are introduced at the beginning of the novel and couldn’t be less subtle; it’s like when a Victorian woman is introduced in a film and keeps coughing into her handkerchief.) The pacing, too, feels odd at times, most notably in Brady’s final plan, which seems ambitious, unsettling, and strangely rushed for a character who plans out everything.
Nonetheless, there’s so much of End of Watch that works that it’s hard to complain too much. King, as always, knows how to write characters and make them come to life, even in a short amount of time, and that’s a skill that pays off often in this book, as we get into characters’ heads just in time to watch them unravel horribly. And, as always, his ability to crank up the pace of a book is hard to ignore; by the time this hits the climax, it’s going to be hard to stop, no matter how much you want to. Yes, parts of it don’t all work, and parts feel a bit less well structured and thought out than the other books in the series. And yet, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I enjoyed the book on the whole. I just can’t help but wonder what would have happened if King had stuck with his more “grounded” world all the way through to the end.
Credit: Josh Mauthe