While I enjoyed the two previous books in this series, where Stephen King explores the terrain of crime fiction rather than his trademark horror, I did feel that something was missing – i.e. the supernatural element for which this author is famous. It’s possible, as I surmised in my review of the previous installment, that King himself might have felt the need to go back to his narrative roots, because toward the end of Finders Keepers he prepared the ground for this return.
Brady Hartsfield, the deranged individual also known as the Mercedes Killer, has languished in a mental hospital for several years, reduced to a catatonic state by a traumatic head injury inflicted by Holly Gibney – Bill Hodges’ assistant – to stop him from detonating a bomb in a crowded auditorium. But Brady – either thanks to some unforeseeable recuperative powers, or to seedy Dr. Babineau’s experimental therapy – has regained control of his mind, if not of his body, and shown some telekinetic abilities that allow him to set in motion a chain of terrifying events, including the ability to seize control of other people’s minds through an apparently inoffensive game console.
Hodges, now retired and managing an investigative agency with his friends Holly and Jerome, never believed that Brady was as harmless as he looked, and when a series of strange suicides targets people who survived Hartsfield’s road carnage, he is more determined than ever to get to the truth, further motivated by the discovery that his time is running out, due to a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer.
As I said, End of Watch sees the return of the supernatural elements that King’s readers have come to expect from his works and where, as it so often happens in his stories, the most innocent-looking objects can turn into powerful instruments of mayhem and devastation: in this case the Zappit – the game console from a now-failed firm that Brady’s minions are offering for free to potential victims – becomes the conduit for Hartsfield’s mind-control thanks to an unforeseen, hypnosis-inducing feature in one of the game demos. Mr. Mercedes, the first book in the series, introduced us to this utterly despicable individual, one totally devoid of any moral compass, whose desire to emerge from anonymity is mated with a deep, unfocused rage toward the world and a desire for revenge, which is here compounded by the long years spent as a virtual vegetable in the hospital.
As we follow Brady’s steps in extending his influence beyond the walls of his prison, carefully plotting his scheme and taking gleeful satisfaction in the first “field tests”, it’s impossible not to be affected by the sense of impending doom and by the fear that Hodges & Co. might not manage to collect all the clues into a complete picture and stop Hartsfield’s plans. The added element of Hodges’ impending death adds a further emotional layer to the mix, particularly where the distressed reactions of Holly and Jerome are concerned: the three of them have become as close as family, and in the case of Holly and Hodges the only family they can count on for affection and support, making their interactions quite poignant, and a necessary balance to the spreading evil orchestrated by Hartsfield.
One of the themes that can be often found in King’s novels is that of the hurt visited on young people, on the loss of the innocence that should be their armor, and End of Watch is no exception: Brady’s mind control exerted through the Zappits tends to push the teenagers who received them toward suicide, working on their insecurities and vulnerabilities. There are some heart-wrenching sequences in which we are made privy to these young people’s inner turmoil, and seeing the way in which Brady exploits them brings the true horror of this story to the surface: the supernatural element of the novel allowed him to connect with these troubled minds, but what he does to them to ensnare them in his “suicide ring” is as real as it is loathsome and for me it rekindled the all-encompassing hate I felt for this character and his utterly unredeemable inclinations.
For this reason, the sense of family that comes from Hodges & Co. feels even more important than ever, and leaves room for some character evolution that I felt was somewhat missing from the previous novel: Hodges himself has come a long way from the man we saw at the start of the series, when he was depressed and despondent – even the awareness of his approaching end does not generate any bitterness, but rather the knowledge that he’s ultimately led a good life, and that he’s leaving an important legacy through Holly and Jerome. And Holly herself – a character I have come to be very fond of – might still be battling her profound insecurities, but you can see how Hodges’ and Jerome’s support set her on a path of independence and self-assurance that can teach her to make a positive use of what others might perceive as obsessive behavior.
As a series ender, this third novel leads us through a breath-stopping chase that kept me on the edge of my seat, but what’s more important here is the sense of a closing circle, of wrapping up the events started by Brady’s road-rage killing spree in the first book: the mass murder at the job fair constantly informs the narrative throughout the series, and we are shown how it affected both individuals and the community as a whole, so it’s important to have closure in this final book, particularly where Brady Hartsfield is concerned, because the poetic justice inherent in his end feels not only satisfying, but also quite right.
The Bill Hodges trilogy was indeed a different reading experience for me, as far as Stephen King’s works are concerned, but also an intriguing one, and it helped to rekindle my interest in this author after a long hiatus. I guess more optimism for future reads is quite justified…