by Stephen King
3 out of 5 Moleskine notebooks
The good news is that it isn’t as bad as Mr. Mercedes, and that there’s actually a halfway decent plot lurking in here. The bad news is that this makes it more clear than ever that Stephen King does horror a helluva lot better than he does crime thrillers.
The story starts out with an acclaimed author named John Rothstein who pulled a J.D. Salinger and hasn’t published anything in decades. Morris Bellamy is a huge fan of Rothstein’s most famous creation, a disaffected rebel without a cause named Jimmy Gold, but he thinks that Rothstein ruined the character in the final book of a trilogy by having him become just another suburbanite working in advertising. Since this is occurring in the ‘70s, Morris can’t go on Goodreads to complain about it so instead he breaks into Rothstein’s house and murders him. He also takes over 160 notebooks filled with all the writing that Rothstein has done since quitting public life as well as over $20,000. Before Morris can read the notebooks, which include new material about his favorite character, he gets waylaid on another charge and sent to prison. For 35 years Morris dreams of getting out and reading the notebooks that he had hidden before being arrested.
In 2009 a teenage boy named Peter Saubers and his family move into Morris’ old house. The Saubers have fallen on hard times after his father lost his real estate job in the market crash of ‘08 and then had the bad luck to get run over and badly injured while standing in line at a job fair. Pete stumbles across the notebooks and the cash, and he uses the money to help his family through their financial crisis. He also reads the notebooks which turn him into a nut for literature and another fan of Jimmy Gold. Several years pass, and Morris is released from prison which puts him on a collision course with Pete. That’s when retired police detective Bill Hodges gets involved along with his trusty assistants, Holly and Jerome.
One thing that Stephen King knows how to do very well (Other than spoiling major character deaths on Game of Thrones via Twitter. Thanks again, Uncle Stevie…) is writing about books. He’s often examined them from both sides in his work: as the act of writing/creating and from the standpoint of being a fan of reading. King knows there something magical in both aspects, but in his world there’s also black magic so he's also looked into that from both angles as well.
With Morris Bellamy, King has created what’s probably his own worst nightmare, the fan who feels an ownership of a character and becomes violently angry when he feels like the author is mistreating him. There are shades of Annie Wilkes in this although the key difference is that Annie understood that her favorite character was a creation and wanted to control what happened to her while Morris sees Jimmy Gold as a real person that Rothstein has been a poor guardian of. This contrasts with Pete, the reader who is content to fall under the spell of an author and admire well-written things, and who feels guilty that he’s had to hide this literary treasure from the world in order to help his family.
The book is at it’s best when it’s about these two as polar opposites because it isn’t just about the conflict and tension of who possesses the notebooks, it’s King writing about the love of reading, and that’s a subject he does very well. I did question the coincidence of Morris and Pete both growing up in the same house years apart and both being the kind of guys who will absolutely fall in love with a literary character like Jimmy Gold, but that’s a minor quibble.
The real issues come when King tries to take this story and make it part of his on-going trilogy featuring Bill Hodges. I found Mr. Mercedes to be a mess, and Hodges was a big part of that as a hodge-podge (Pun intended.) of poorly conceived motivations and plot twists that made the character seem irresponsible and reckless. (Something that King even acknowledges in this one when Hodges reflects on his backstory and admits that he nearly got a bunch of people killed “by going Lone Ranger”.) He doesn’t do anything that egregious here, but the problem is that he is completely unnecessary.
Hodges doesn’t even appear in the story until almost halfway through the book, and when he does the main plot comes to a screeching halt as King has to explain exactly who he and his friends are as well as the backstory of Mr. Mercedes. Then his only real contribution comes at the very end and could have easily been done by a new character. The main reason that Hodges is in this book at all seems to be to set up the third book, and there’s even an element at the end that feels like the bonus post-credits scene in a Marvel movie.
In fact, the appearance of Hodges underlines that King, for all his vast storytelling talents, just really doesn’t have a handle on the kind of plotting and pacing required for a tense crime thriller. I’ve joked before that King has two speeds: dead slow and all-hell-breaks-loose. He very often can make that work, but it’s telling that a lot of his books take place over extended periods of time from weeks to months to years. King is at his best doing a slow burn, and there’s no question that he knows how to do suspense and a sense of dread in his usual kind of stories, However, he just has no natural feel for making that work in crime fiction.
For example, this plot is structured around two characters, Morris and Pete, and the readers know their whole story and can see where the trains are going to collide. However, once he brings Hodges and his friends into the story, he tries to turn it into a mystery with them trying to solve the riddle of what Pete has been doing. As the action ramps up at the end, a big chunk of the story is Hodges trying to figure out what we already read so there’s absolutely no tension to it. A good thriller often has the hero trying to figure out something the reader knows, but there should be some kind of climatic pay off. Like some bit of info held back, the revelation of which should provide a satisfying A-HA! kind of breakthrough that is critical to driving the plot forward. (The pivotal clue in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon is a great example of making this work.) But here we’ve just got Hodges putting together what we already know and trailing uselessly in the wake of the real action.
King also sometimes has trouble with plotting when he can’t say that some supernatural force is helping push things along. There’s a great illustration of that here when Morris is trying to clean up a particularly nasty mess he’s made at one point, and he has every reason to remove a certain item. He even thinks that he should take it with him, but then he leaves it only because of a powerful hunch. Sure enough, he later has an opportunity to use that object to his advantage through events he could not have predicted, but the mere fact that it’s in the room shows that King decided to disregard the logic of the crime genre which dictate that you should always get rid of the evidence just to use it as a plot point later. Then to add insult to injury that object almost immediately become irrelevant after this twist which highlights how it wasn’t really necessary to begin with. So King introduced an element that he knew didn’t make a lot of sense, didn’t bother to come up with a convincing reason that it could have been logically kept in play, and then immediately dropped the whole thing so it was pointless anyhow.
King himself has even gone on record in a recent interview about how he’s had a hard time with these books and doesn’t understand how mystery writers do it regularly. While I like that he gave something new a try, I also think that he’s just not suited to doing this genre, and that he’s usually at his best when he has some kind of fantastic element to lean on.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW!
The end of this one certainly make it appear that King himself has realized this and is throwing in the towel on this whole crime thriller thing to bring Brady Hartsfield back as a telekinetic villain. If that’s the case, if the first and third books are going to be centered on Hodges vs. Brady then this second book is going to seem even more like an interlude that really had nothing to do with the main story of the trilogy. Which would again beg the question of what Bill Hodges is doing in this book at all.
Also posted on Goodreads.