Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Finders Keepers, by Stephen King

                I was enormously disappointed in this book.  Me, a dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool, forever fan of Stephen King! I feel as though I have just blasphemed, uttering such an opinion, but it is true:  in ‘Finders Keepers’ the essential, vital element of dread and nail-biting suspense so effortlessly produced in all his novels is initially missing.  The story doesn’t gain impetus or pace until at least halfway through, when the great trio of characters from the brilliant ‘Mr. Mercedes’ (see July, 2014 review below) are reintroduced, for this is part two of a trilogy.   That I am glad to hear, for part three may yet fulfil the promise not realised in Finders Keepers;  then Mr King will be back to his usual superb standard.
            Morris Bellamy fancies himself an intellectual.  He is well-read enough to know that John Rothstein, reclusive writer of some of the greatest contemporary American literature, lives miles away from the nearest neighbour;  has few visitors;  the cleaning lady visits just once a week, making him a prime candidate for an easy break-in and robbery.  Morris and his two bumbling sidekicks don’t take long to rouse Rothstein from his sleep, force from him his safe combination, and rifle its contents.  The only deviation from the original plan being that Rothstein is mouthy:  he dares Morris to use his gun.  So he does.  Morris never could resist a dare, for Morris has a mouth of his own that has dropped him in the brown stuff more than once;  however, he does feel a fleeting regret for he admires Rothstein for the great writer he was (even though it was Morris who sent him into the past tense) – but what a bonus!  In the safe, along with a good chunk of money, are more than a hundred Moleskine notebooks, containing not one but two sequels to Rothstein’s master work.  Morris is well pleased with the night’s events but is starting to be irked by his colleagues, both of whom object strongly to the murder of the old man – so he despatches them, too.  Killing people is as easy as falling off a log, especially if one is a psychopath.
            Morris is lucky to avoid suspicion when the murder victims are eventually discovered – not all in the same place:  he isn’t STUPID.  Instead, he goes to jail for a very long time for another crime entirely, committed when he gets roaring drunk in a bar:  alcohol and Morris are enemies and should stay away from each other at all costs. Fortunately, Morris hides his stash of money and the notebooks (which he can hardly wait to read) before he is sent away for more than thirty years, the thought of the treasure awaiting him sustaining him as he grows into an old man.
            Enter the new tenants of Morris’s old house:  a good family fallen on hard times, for the father was horribly injured by the rampaging Mercedes driver while he stood in line at the Job Fair. The family is at a low financial and emotional ebb – until son Peter finds by accident a mysterious trunk containing money (praise be!) and notebooks filled with writings by one of America’s classic novelists.
            The family is saved from penury and certain breakup by this wonderful windfall – until Morris is released from jail and comes looking for his stash, only to find it gone.  His rage is Olympian, and when he finds the culprit, that sorry sinner will die.
FINALLY, suspense starts to build.  Pete knows he is in trouble and his sister worries about him so much she enlists the services of her friend Barbara, who calls in Finders Keepers, an investigative agency run by K. William Hodges, Det.ret., and Holly Gibney, computer supremo and Aspergers sufferer.  Barbara’s brother, Jerome, has gone to Harvard but he appears during the holidays to lend his particular talents to the investigation, which is just as well;  these three characters carry the story now, and should have appeared much sooner, for they are absolute stars.
And we haven’t heard the last from Brady Hartfield, the infamous Mr Mercedes of Book One:  he lies in hospital with irreparable brain damage, thanks to Holly’s brave intervention.  He is not expected to regain any motor skills, or any faculties at all, really, and Bill Hodges visits him on a regular basis, taking absolute delight at this murderer’s incapacity.  He cannot resist taunting his dull-eyed nemesis, secure in the knowledge that this beast will never kill again.  Or will he?  Roll on Book Three - and goodbye to Morris Bellamy, who just wasn’t up to snuff, but I look forward as always to meeting Jerome, Holly and Det.Ret. K. William Hodges once more for what I hope will be a stunning showdown with resurrected evil.

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

Former Detective K. William Hodges is nearing the end of his tether.  Since he retired from the city Police Force, life has lost its edge;  there is nothing meaningful to relieve the boredom of his days, most of which are spent watching inane TV shows, eating junk food and drinking too much. 
Some days are worse than others:  on those days he contemplates suicide and sits in front of his TV with his father’s gun by his side – until the day he gets a letter, purportedly from a man who mowed down a line of jobseekers in a stolen Mercedes, a case that was still unsolved when he retired.
The letter writer seems to know a lot about Bill Hodges, including details of his first name (Kermit); information about his farewell bash (it was a drunken riot of fun!); and even more chilling:  insider knowledge of Bill’s suicidal thoughts.  Is this monster a mind-reader?  How does he know so much? 
The general tenor of the letter is designed to increase Bill’s feelings of worthlessness, to push him into that last act with his father’s gun:  ‘it would be too bad if you started thinking your whole career had been a waste of time because the fellow who killed all those Innocent People ‘slipped through your fingers’.
But you are thinking of it, aren’t you?  I would like to close with one final thought from ‘the one that got away’.  That thought is:
Just kidding!
Very truly yours,

Once again, Mr King takes the reader into the dark places of minds and hearts with his usual effortless skill.  In this latest opus there is nary a hint of the supernatural for which he is so famous; not a spectre in sight:  instead he writes of the monsters that contemporary society creates who walk among their unsuspecting victims disguised by spurious normality -  as here, where the Mercedes killer is revealed early in the plot as Brady Hartfield, dutiful son of an alcoholic mother and hard worker at two jobs, one as a computer technician, the other driving an ice cream van.  What could be more normal; (even a little sad – the sacrifices that boy makes for his mother!) he works super hard at blending in with everything and everyone – why, he’s practically invisible!
But not infallible.  Contrary to his expectations, his letter has given K. William Hodges (Det.Ret.) a huge boost;  the depressive clouds have parted – his mind, always keen, has something to grapple with again:  start playing the game, Mr Mercedes.  Let’s see who wins!
As always, Mr King provides his main protagonists with great supporting characters, in this case Jerome, Bill’s 17 year old lawn and odd job boy – who just happens to be black, highly intelligent and a computer whizz – but not half as whizzy as Holly, a true PC Maestro who unfortunately is plagued with ‘issues’.  They are Bill’s doughty assistants.  Their dialogue is perfect, crackling and comic (how I wish I could remember some of those one liners!) but it never distracts us from the horror and creeping suspense of a great story.  Mr Mercedes is going to strike again.  But where?  When?  And can they stop him?
Stephen King has once again held a mirror up to contemporary society, and it shows a chilling image, one that is very hard to look at.  Highly recommended.

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