Early on in End of Watch, the final chapter in Stephen King’s crime-fiction trilogy that began with the Edgar Award-winning Mr. Mercedes and continued with Finders Keepers, the retired police detective-turned-private investigator Bill Hodges receives some bad news from his doctor: “It’s pancreatic cancer, and I’m afraid we caught it ... well ... rather late in the game. Your liver is involved.”
At the same time, Hodges’ arch-nemesis Brady Hartsfield has made a startling recovery. Hartsfield is the psychopath who kick-started the three-book saga five years earlier by plowing his car into a crowd of people, tried to kill thousands more with a bomb during a pop concert at the Mingo Auditorium arena and is now lying in a semi-vegetative state in a traumatic brain injury clinic. He’s bedridden inside his hospital room 217 (readers of The Shining, take note!). He can’t speak and can barely move. But his sick mind is sharp and cunning, and as a side effect to some experimental drugs he was given, he has developed a touch of telekinesis — he can rattle window blinds and turn water faucets on — and other, more troubling abilities.
Brady has also had time to plan his revenge on Hodges and the rest of the world, which he intends to carry out from the confines of his bed: “In the ten years between his graduation from high school and that disabling moment in the Mingo Auditorium, Brady’s fascination with suicide — including his own, always seen as part of some grand historic gesture — continued. This seed has now, against all the odds, fully blossomed. He will be the Jim Jones of the twenty-first century.”
King has long been investing inanimate objects with supernatural evil: A 1958 Plymouth in Christine, cell phones in Cell, a laundry press machine in the short story The Mangler. In End of Watch, he does the same for tablets and the Internet, turning them into a conduit through which a computer genius can manipulate people to commit suicide. The concept is a bit hokey, but King invests it with so many careful details that you go with it anyway. Besides, the book moves too quickly to give you time to ponder its implausibility, and it is filled with the sort of devious, teasing sentences that make it practically impossible to stop reading (“‘I’ll make sure of it,’ Hodges says, but that is a promise he’s not able to keep.”)
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End of Watch won’t go down as a landmark in the crime-fiction genre: As gifted as he is at intricate plotting, King’s no match for Elmore Leonard or John D. MacDonald. But the book leaves a surprisingly deep, melancholy mark, crystallizing the themes that have become prevalent in King’s recent work. 11/22/63, Doctor Sleep, Revival and the short story collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams all dealt with characters lamenting their past and confronting their looming mortality. Hodges’ prognosis would pulverize a lesser man. But he’s got a case to solve. “I need to think about this,” he tells his doctor after he’s prescribed chemo and radiation treatments. He lies to Holly Gibney, his crime-solving partner since Mr. Mercedes, so as not to worry her. “Good news, actually. It’s an ulcer, but just a little one. I’ll have to take a bunch of pills and be careful about my diet.”
But the specter of impending death haunts Hodges, depriving him of sleep and physical comfort, as he squares off against a lunatic who is hypnotizing strangers via screen savers and pushing them to take their own lives by exploiting their existing depression. King throws in occasional asides that explore the tragedy of suicide compassionately but without romanticizing it, and the irony is bittersweet, coming from the perspective of a 68-year-old writer whose personal life has seen its share of low points.
“[T]he thought that comes to him is too complicated — too fraught with a terrible mixture of anger and sorrow — to be articulated. It’s about how some people carelessly squander what others would see their souls to have: a healthy, pain-free body. And why? Because they’re too blind, too emotionally scarred, or too self-involved to see past the earth’s dark curve to the next sunrise. Which always comes, if one continues to draw breath.”
End of Watch isn’t a horror novel, although King is still able to rattle the reader whenever he wants, with ease (“The next day when he left the house, Moretti found a dead dog stretched out on the welcome mat. Its throat had been cut. Written in dogblood on the windshield of his car was YOUR WIFE & KIDS ARE NEXT.”). The novel sometimes seems rushed: There are stretches in which the characters spout so much expository dialogue at each other you feel like you’re reading a screenplay.
But you tear through this book so quickly, the flaws are easy to forgive. End of Watch hurtles toward a conclusion you anticipate and dread in equal measure — that wonderful, terrible anxiety King’s constant readers have been relishing for more than four decades now. “He’s not done with you yet,” reads an ominous message Hodges receives on his computer in End of Watch. We’re lucky. King isn’t done with us either.
Rene Rodriguez is the Miami Herald’s film critic.