Monday 13 June 2016

Book Review | End of Watch by Stephen King

Retired Detective Bill Hodges now runs a two-person firm called Finders Keepers with his partner Holly Gibney. They met in the wake of the Mercedes Massacre, when a queue of people was run down by the diabolical killer Brady Hartsfield.

Brady is now confined to Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, in an unresponsive state. But all is not what it seems: the evidence suggests that Brady is somehow awake, and in possession of deadly new powers that allow him to wreak unimaginable havoc without ever leaving his hospital room.

When Bill and Holly are called to a suicide scene with ties to the Mercedes Massacre, they find themselves pulled into their most dangerous case yet, one that will put their lives at risk, as well as those of Bill's heroic young friend Jerome Robinson and his teenage sister, Barbara. Brady Hartsfield is back, and planning revenge not just on Hodges and his friends, but on an entire city.

The clock is ticking in unexpected ways...


The Bill Hodges trilogy that began with the Edgar Award-winning Mr Mercedes and continued in last year's fearsome Finders Keepers comes to an uncharacteristically concise close in End of Watch, a finale which finds Stephen King's determined old det-ret racing against the clock to get to the bottom of a string of suicides he thinks could be linked to the malignant mind behind the Mercedes Massacre:
On a foggy morning in 2009, a maniac named Brady Hartsfield drove a stolen Mercedes Benz into a crowd of job-seekers at City Center, downtown. He killed eight and seriously injured fifteen. [...] Martine Stover had been the toughest [survivor] to talk to, and not only because her disfigured mouth made her all but impossible to understand for anyone except her mother. Stover was paralysed from the chest down. (p.16)
The adjustment has been damned difficult, but in the seven years since the incident, Martine has come to terms with her limited mobility. She and her mother, who stepped up to the plate in the wake of that darkest of dates, have grown closer than ever before. They've been, by all accounts, happy—hard as that might for some outsiders to imagine—and happy people don't force overdoses on their dearly beloved daughters then takes cannisters of gas into the bath, do they?

Because of Hodges' history with Hartsfield, he and his recalcitrant partner Holly Gibney are, as a courtesy, invited to see the scene of what the police are keen to call a murder-suicide, and although the evidence in support of that theory is clear, when our PIs find a Zappit—a budget-brand tablet Hodges has seen the object of his obsession play with in the past—they can't help but suspect a connection.

But how could Mr Mercedes be involved in the deaths of Martine Stover and Janice Ellerton when he's basically brain-dead himself?

Whatever happened in that home at the end of Hilltop Court—the chain of thoughts and conversations, of tears and promises, all ending in the dissolved pills injected into the feeding tube and the tank of helium with the laughing children decaled on the side—it can have nothing to do with Brady Hartsfield, because Holly literally bashed his brains out. If Hodges sometimes doubts, it's because he can't stand the idea that Brady has somehow escaped punishment. That in the end, the monster eluded him. (pp.39-40)
And perhaps there's some truth to that—some truth and even a touch of justice to our det-ret's desire to ensure that Hartsfield, having done the crime, does the time. But remember, readers, the last scene of Finders Keepers: a break in the straight story King had told to date in which Mr Mercedes seemed to express his feelings through, of all things, telekinesis.

For good or for ill, End of Watch doubles down on that then-unexpected direction:
Her final doubts are swept away and she knows for sure. [...] It's Brady, all right. He's become a living Russian nesting doll, which goes perfectly with his furry Russian hat. Look inside Babineau and there's Dr Z. Look inside Dr Z, and there, pulling all the levers, is Brady Hartsfield. God knows how it can be, but it is. (p.195)
And that's kind of... it. Hartsfield has no control over his own body, so, somehow, he's started hijacking the bodies of passers-by to do his dirty work: work which involves inciting the seeming suicides of the several thousand survivors of his various attacks way back.

Oddly for an author so closely associated with the supernatural, Stephen King's naturalistic narratives have been among his most magical. When for whatever reason he can't lean on the MacGuffins he so often uses to sustain his stories, he has to work that much harder to make them in some sense momentous, and this, I think, brings out the best in King as a creator—see last year's Finders Keepers, which for my money holds up against even Different Seasons.

The former book's conclusion gave us fair warning where End of Watch was going to go, granted, but even so, if you're going to introduce something speculative into a world arranged around the idea that every event can be explained, you have to at least give a reason why the rules have summarily changed. And alas, King doesn't do a great job of squaring up the supernatural elements of End of Watch with the unaffected suspense of Mr Mercedes and its superior sequel. It feels, frankly, like he simply gave in to temptation, and I'm no happier about that than I would have been if, for example, Katniss Everdeen had suddenly developed superpowers during the last act of Catching Fire.

End of Watch isn't especially welcoming to new readers either. There's a little recap here and a bit of explanation there, such that folks unfamiliar with the other Bill Hodges novels will have enough knowledge of the plot to follow along, but they'll miss out on the perversely intimate history that justifies the dynamic between between our hero and Hartsfield, and sadly, divorced as they are from their earlier development, the story's supporting characters are apt to come across as caricatures.

But if, like me, you're a returning reader, and you're willing, as well, to swallow the mind-control medicine, End of Watch does satisfactorily wrap up the Bill Hodges trilogy. King gets the band back together in time for at least one last hurrah—and it's a pleasure to watch them perform—before hurling all involved headlong towards an ending that had me on the edge of my seat. Thus, though End of Watch is the least of the three books of the series it completes, it bears repeating that its predecessors have been exceptional.


End of Watch
by Stephen King

UK Publication: June 2016, Hodder
US Publication: June 2016, Scribner

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