End of Watch
The Bill Hodges Trilogy, Book 3
Scribner • 2016 • 448 pages
A Novel Critique
What’s interesting about these Bill Hodges crime capers is how they’re all basically riffs on classic Stephen King tropes, but instead of following them down horror corridors, they lead us down alleys of modern noir and crime fiction. Mr. Mercedes, with its unhinged mass murderer and vehicular homicide, pulled from classics like Carrie and Christine, with a touch of “Apt Pupil” thrown in for good measure. Finders Keepers is yet another in a long line of King stories about stories, how they affect people, and how people affect them. The book it reminds us most of is Misery, but there’s a bit of The Dark Half and Bag of Bones and even “Secret Window, Secret Garden” sprinkled in. With the final book in the Hodges trilogy, End of Watch, we’re treated to a look at what the scientists in Firestarter might have gotten up to in the twenty-first century, and how technology and social media might have made their meddling worse.
Of course, this is all simplistic: boil down any story to its component parts and you start to see similarities. This isn’t about King repeating himself. It’s about taking the stuff King is familiar with – homicidal cars, mass murderers, psi powers, lunatic fans – and putting in in a whole new type of of fiction. He proved he could strut on Harlan Coben’s turf in Mr. Mercedes, and the result was something thrilling: Stephen King warming up writing muscles he’d only touched on using before. Finders Keepers proved him out, and even though he didn’t win an Edgar for it, it was the better novel, one of King’s minor masterpieces. Now we come to End of Watch, the final book in the trilogy, and while it’s a good book that satisfies all the requirements it needs to to finish this series, there’s something missing.
Or maybe – and this is going to sound like a skipping record – it’s about something added. Books that would be stronger without a supernatural element are legion in King’s vast canon: see Cujo, Dolores Claiborne, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, even Blaze – sometimes it feels as if King believes his story (or his audience) can’t function fully outside the supernatural realm. And to be fair, the element of “other” in End of Watch isn’t technically supernatural; he goes to great lengths to make the “wild talents” scientific, as in Firestarter. King’s career-long fear of technology gets updated to the social media age, and that’s pretty exciting, too. From “Trucks” to Christine to The Tommyknockers to Cell to “Ur,” King has long found terror in tech, and it was a terror that usually kept current with the times. When he first mentioned Twitter in “Big Driver,” it was as if he was putting a toe in the social media waters; in End of Watch, he’s jumping in head-first.
Perhaps the beats here just feel too familiar. When Roland Deschain’s consciousness took over the bodies of Eddie Dean, Odetta Holmes, and Jack Mort in The Drawing of the Three, that was unique and new. When Tak inhabited Seth Garin in The Regulators, it was terrifying. When Mr. Gray wore Jonesy in Dreamcatcher, the concept was getting a little careworn, and the effect a little diminished – just how diminished depended on how much you enjoyed King’s angry, somewhat disaffected novel about identity and pain. And we can’t forget Dinky Earnshaw of “Everything’s Eventual,” this book’s most direct antecedent. Dinky had the power to make people kill themselves just by sending an email. The difference is that Dinky was conflicted about it, and eventually came over to the side of the good guys.
Here, one of King’s most compelling psychopaths, Brady Hartsfield, is reduced to mere consciousness Ö then that consciousness discovers it can take over others’ bodies and affect lives beyond even that. In a way, King has finally, in prose form, realized the story of the Lawnmower Man film – a movie so tenuously based on King’s short story that he successfully sued to get his name removed. The problem with elevating a fantastically realized character like Brady Hartsfield to godlike status is the same problem with diminishing a godlike character like Randall Flagg to mortal status: both serve to undercut what has gone before. That’s not to say character growth and development aren’t key, and that characters behaving in ways different than we’ve previously established isn’t indicative of that sort of growth. It’s just that most of Brady Hartsfield’s poisonous appeal lay in the fact that he was just a guy. Just a fucked-up guy who loved the idea of suicide and wanted to spread it around. Transforming him from the Suicide Prince to the Suicide God flatlines the horror of who he’d been in Mr. Mercedes.
There’s plenty of good here, even within Brady’s transformation. King excels when it comes to discovery of wild talents. Carrie White lifting up her bed with her mind, Danny Torrance talking with Dick Hallorann without speaking aloud, Charlie McGee’s slow control over her pyrokinesis: all these scenes bristle with the sense of discovery and wonder, never taking these new powers for granted. Brady’s first, tenuous dips into other people’s consciousnesses is King at his best, allowing the reader to see and sense just how strange something like brain-hijacking can be. Additionally, King has long been making strides toward including gay characters that are fully realized as something beyond their sexuality; in End of Watch we get a non-hero, non-villain gay woman who has demons, just like everyone else.
And it’s nice to see Bill and Holly and Jerome again for one last go. There have been a few somewhat uncomfortable moments with these three in the past – Jerome’s exaggerated black persona (seemingly a callback to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, and the character of Hawk, who wore a jive-talking persona he shed easily and often), Bill telling Holly she should smile more because she’s prettier that way – but these are minor quibbles when the characters are this likable and fun together.
Perhaps it’s unfair to judge this book by what’s gone before: Mr. Mercedes was a very good book, and Finders Keepers was a knockout. In comparison, End of Watch comes up just a little short. Plus, and this isn’t the book’s fault, it has to contend with the weight of this being King’s last announced book. By this point in his publishing cycle, King would have announced the next book (or two!); that none seem to be forthcoming feels ominous, and imbues End of Watch (with its seemingly prescient title) with an importance it doesn’t ask for. The Bill Hodges books are caper novels, for the most part – stylistically breezy and intent on telling fun, gripping stories that don’t demand the level of scrutiny that, say, 11/22/63 or Bag of Bones requires. The last time King took a long break between books, The Tommyknockers was the most recent novel and we had to wait a long time for The Dark Half. In retrospect, we can view The Tommyknockers on its own level as a flawed book with redeeming qualities, without having to view it as a summation of King’s career. Maybe the same thing will happen with End of Watch: a good book with flaws that needs to find its place in a hopefully expanding body of work.