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Review: End of Watch (Bill Hodges Trilogy Wrap-up)

CW: suicide, murder, gaslighting, racism, homophobia, fatphobia, cruelty to hospital patient, cancer

Almost a year after I started, I have finally finished reading the Bill Hodges trilogy, which concludes with End of Watch by Stephen King. For more thoughts on the trilogy, you can check out my full reviews of the previous books, Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, though I’ll also do a small series wrap-up below. It should all be spoiler-free, except any characters mentioned at this point have obviously survived books 1 and 2, etc. All in all, I see End of Watch as a fair conclusion to the series, though it failed to live up to the promising start of the trilogy for me.

endofwatchIn the novel, Hodges’s old partner on the police force calls Hodges in on a case that looks like a standard murder/suicide. One of the deceased was also a victim of the Mercedes Massacre (an intentional hit and run at a job fair), a case Hodges helped close. Though the police don’t want to look further into these new deaths, some strange clues lead Hodges back to Mr. Mercedes- aka Brady Hartsfield- at the brain injury ward of the local hospital. But is Brady still impaired? There have been some rumors on the ward that he might be faking, that strange things have been happening around him. Has he found a way to keep killing without leaving his room? And if so, how can anyone stop him?

“Dead people never look more dead than in police photos.”

Right away I was much more excited about the premise of End of Watch than I had been about book 2, because this final volume harks back to the Mercedes Massacre in a big way- an element I enjoyed in the first book and found lacking in the second. In End of Watch, we see into Brady Hartsfield’s disturbed mind once again as he attempts to resume murdering the citizens of this trilogy’s unnamed Ohio city. Furthermore, we see King return to his well-known sci-fi/horror brand in this volume rather than sticking strictly with a PI/police style mystery as in books 1 and 2. Everything boded well for me to enjoy this one.

Though ultimately I did like the basic plot and the return to some of the trilogy’s earlier threads, it just didn’t quite come together here as well as I’d hoped based on the similarities to Mr. Mercedes. In the first book, Hodges becomes freshly involved with the hunt for Mr. Mercedes for close personal reasons- Hartsfield comes after him purposefully, trying to capitalize on Hodges’s depression to goad him into suicide; in End of Watch, Hodges’s involvement in the latest case is less exciting: meddling has become a habit, and with his health coming into question he’s looking for closure (how trite). Additionally, a common issue for me with King’s work (more pronounced in some stories than others), is the ease with which the characters manage to jump to the right conclusions. They stumble upon the answers they’re looking for, or somehow know just where to look. They make no wrong turns. Intuition runs high, and actual detective work remains minimal. I found this particularly problematic in this trilogy as a whole, which purports to be a crime mystery series, but specifically it seemed most pronounced in End of Watch.

I also had some of the same complaints with this final book as I did reccently in Finders Keepers; though the writing seemed a bit more considerate towards marginalized characters, there are still a couple of racial and homophobic slurs in use, fatness is shown as something to be ashamed of, and women are fairly insignificant. Most of these annoyances come up in the killer’s thoughts and dialogue, which supports the possibility that they are knowingly used for characterization rather than an indicator of the author’s personal opinions, but I found them distasteful nonetheless. Fortunately, it’s toned down a bit from the last volume, at least.

The most worrisome element for me in End of Watch was the extreme emphasis on suicide. The National Suicide Prevention hotline is mentioned both in the text and in an author’s note at the back of the book, but I would still caution anyone sensitive to this topic to enter with caution, if at all. Though we see in book 1 how effective Hartsfield can be at persuading his victims to kill themselves, that’s only one small stepping stone in Mr. Mercedes whereas it’s the main conflict in End of Watch. Not only do several teens and young adults attempt (and mostly succeed at) suicide, but we see Hartsfield maliciously whittle down their self-esteem to convince them to do it. He capitalizes on anything these characters have been bullied about- their weight, their sexuality, their intelligence, etc. It’s plenty unsettling to see these young and vulnerable people taken advantage of in this way, and also a bit concerning that many of the characters who are victimized are the “misfits”- not straight, white, thin, and pretty. It’s difficult to say whether King meant to emphasize how difficult life can be for bullied teens, or whether he simply found them the most expendable.

“Four in the morning is usually an unhappy time to be awake. It’s when unpleasant thoughts and pessimistic ideas come to the fore.”

All in all, a mixed experience. I enjoyed the sci-fi element and was suitably horrified by the villain’s capabilities and intent; I found the plot solid if a bit convenient and predictable. The thematic focus seems to shift towards the importance of found family and supporting one’s friends, but I don’t pick up Stephen King novels for wholesome morals; they feel gimmicky to me amidst the grisly deaths and psychological terror. End of Watch, like the rest of this trilogy, isn’t really a book that’s meant to teach- it’s pure entertainment.

Was I entertained? With Mr. Mercedes, the answer is a whole-hearted yes. I thought the plot was well-crafted, the characters strong and interesting each for their own reason, and the writing acceptable. (I did read it almost a year ago, so it’s possible I just didn’t pick up on as much or don’t remember it as clearly.) With Finders Keepers, I was entertained, but I spent a decent portion of my reading time marveling over how bad that book seemed, so I wouldn’t say it was an entirely positive sort of entertainment. I liked the concept, but didn’t think much of it was executed well. With End of Watch, I’m not sure I can say I was entertained. The trajectory of the novel seemed obvious to me from early on, so I spent most of the read just waiting for the big showdown I expected at the end to arrive.

Across the entire series, my favorite elements were 1) seeing the Mercedes Massacre from every angle- its conception, its execution, its aftermath. I thought King did a great job of conveying how far-reaching a tragedy like this can be for a community, and at every turn it felt woven into the fabric of these characters’ lives. And 2) the main characters. I feel the need to caveat though that I appreciated them more early on, as they were still morphing into the people they would become. But watching Hartsfield deteriorate? Watching Holly stabilize and find her independence? Seeing Jerome succeed in school and save the day in his spare time? These are the moments I’ll remember from this trilogy, and the reason I’m still interested in reading further about Holly in The Outsider (and potentially in the upcoming If It Bleeds), despite some dissatisfaction with King’s style of late.

Final ratings: Mr. Mercedes – 5 stars. Finders Keepers – 2 stars. End of Watch

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to like this one so much after my dismal experience with Finders Keepers, but sadly it never seemed more than fine. Still, I’m glad I took the time to see where the storyline from Mr. Mercedes went in the end, and this trilogy certainly gave me some food for thought in my journey through King’s work. And, honestly, it’s just so nice to finish something! I feel like I’ve gotten worse in recent years about starting series and reading projects that I take forever to finish, if I ever do. And if my possible buddy read pans out, I’ll be knocking out The Outsider soon as well, the Holly spin-off. Progress is being made.

Thanks for bearing with me this far if you’re still here. I know this has turned into a particularly long and meandering review. It was probably a mistake deciding to finish this at 1:30 am.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

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Review: Finders Keepers

CW: murder, living with serious injury, theft, racism, homophobia, sexism, fatphobia, child abuse (tying wrists, pushing through window, threatening at gunpoint)

Finders Keepers is the second book in Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy. I read book one, Mr. Mercedes, in a buddy read last year, and have been slow to continue despite thoroughly enjoying that first book. The prospect of an upcoming buddy read for another King novel (The Outsider) has finally motivated me to finish the series- today I’ll talk about Finders Keepers, and End of Watch (book 3) should be up later this week. No spoilers of course, as usual, though I’ve got plenty of complaints to air.

finderskeepersIn the novel, a writer-turned-recluse is robbed and murdered in 1978. Most of the crew that committed this crime were in it for the money, but one wanted the unpublished manuscripts and miscellaneous written work. To avoid getting caught for the crime, the books are packed away, only to be discovered by a teenager in 2014. One becomes desperate to sell the books on the black market, one becomes increasingly desperate to keep them, and neither is quite in control of the situation once a shady book dealer realizes what they have. Retired cop Bill Hodges and his PI buddies are brought into the case by a friend who wants to settle the matter before official police become involved.

“MacFarland may think [Morris is] too old to be a wolf, but what his parole officer doesn’t know is that Morris has already killed three people, and driving a car isn’t the only thing that’s like riding a bike.”

Finders Keepers is very much a bookish book. A bookish horror, one might say. It’s crammed full of references to titles and authors from a wide variety of genres; two of the main characters are big readers, and one is a bookshop owner, where part of the novel takes place. Sadly, bookish books don’t always work for me- name dropping and copious bookstore visits don’t quite make up for quality characterization and plot. Though King is generally known for his convincing characterization and unique plots, I found both elements severely lacking in this novel.

In fact, there were quite a host of aspects that just didn’t work for me here. First and foremost is that for a second book, Finders Keepers barely fits into the trajectory of the trilogy started by Mr. Mercedes and concluded in End of Watch. The few characters carried over from book one are largely unessential in this story, their appearances more like unnecessary cameos rather than a link to the rest of the series. The Mercedes Massacre (from Mr. Mercedes) does help lay the ground for the events of this volume, but any injury for Tom Saubers could have led these characters into the same situation. A bit of overt foreshadowing to indicate that the next volume will pick up the threads left dangling at the end of Mr. Mercedes comprises the only tenuous connection between Finders Keepers and the rest of the trilogy. In my opinion, this novel should have been a stand-alone with Hodges removed, and the other two books could have formed a nice duology.

My main problem with the plot actually has more to do with the novel’s structure. Though I usually enjoy irony, much of the suspense is removed from this story by the fact that we follow multiple characters who know different parts of the mystery. By the time Morris is panicking about where the manuscripts are, the reader has already learned their location from Pete’s perspective. Furthermore, I believe Hodges (and crew)’s sole purpose in this book is to guide the reader through this “mystery,” though by the time Hodges catches up to what is going on, everything is already clear to the reader- it’s the other characters who could use a guide.

On the subject of characters, I feel the need to address King’s poor representation of female characters- again. The last few King novels I’ve read have been much older (see: The Stand), and it’s been easier in those cases to chalk up the sexism as the product of an unenlightened era, but Finders Keepers was published in 2015. We’re way past the point where a raped woman should be presented as a villain for trying to convince her attacker’s parole board that he should remain imprisoned. And shame on King, for making her apologize to her rapist for that effort. But even outside of unsavory plot points, there were just some really awful lines making casual appearances in this book. Here’s just one example:

“Holly smiles, and Hodges thinks- as he always does- that she should do it more often. When she smiles, Holly is almost beautiful. With a little mascara around her eyes, she probably would be.”

If Holly is going to smile, it had better be for her own sake rather than to reassure Hodges that she is beautiful.

And women are not the only victims of this treatment.  The word “fat” is also thrown around copiously as a negative descriptor; villains are frequently referred to as “fat fucks,” etc. I noted at least one (each) racial and homophobic slur. Even if terrible remarks only crop up as characterization for old white men, it’s just gross for things like this to keep showing up- there are other ways to show that a character is evil (or in Hodges’s case, outdated). Instances like these are exactly the reason that his pro-lesbian messages in Elevation felt insincere to me.

But, terrible writing choices aside (and I swear it’s not always this bad), Finders Keepers does have a couple of redeeming features. The basic premise is interesting and engaging, and once we move past the mystery portion of it, the conflict is intense and unpredictable. Its morals are worthwhile for any reader, though I like to think that most are sensible enough not to kill for unpublished works from their favorite authors in the first place.

“Pete was coming to the conclusion that creative writing couldn’t really be taught, only learned.”

It is also interesting, the more of King’s work that I read, to see some of his ideas being recycled. Finders Keepers bears some striking similarities to King’s Misery in regards to theme and tone- both explore the quandary of whether a published work belongs primarily to its creator or to the audience who receives it- and reminds fans that no piece of literature is worth the writer’s (or anyone’s) life. In terms of plot Misery is a very different work (and the one I would recommend to anyone who can stomach a bit of body horror), but both seem to lead back to the same basic seed of idea; it’s intriguing to see the ways in which a thought can evolve over the course of about 30 years. Insights like these are why I keep going with King’s books, even though some of the stories really don’t work for me; it’s incredible to be able to follow a prolific writer’s trajectory through the many ups and downs of a long and remarkable career.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I can’t deny that it held my attention, though I think there were a few instances when I slipped into hate-reading it, which is compelling for a different reason. Overall, this has been a real contender for my least favorite Stephen King novel, though the other least favorites that come immediately to mind were disliked for different reasons, which makes it hard to hold them up side by side. In any case, I’m still intending to finish the series and my full read of King’s oeuvre; fortunately, End of Watch is looking like a vast improvement so far.

Is there any particular book that you wish you could remove from a series that you otherwise enjoy?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: Mr. Mercedes

I fell so far behind on book reviews since the beginning of October… I’ve been keeping notes so that I can try reviewing with my usual thoroughness, but it has been a hot minute since I read many of the books that I’ll be reviewing this month, so I might keep catch-up reviews a little briefer and stick to what I remember most strongly.

To start, I read Mr. Mercedes in early October with a buddy– we both wanted to get into this series (the Bill Hodges series, which is a sort of prequel to King’s 2018 release, The Outsider) and now we’re hooked. I’ve been too busy to continue the series immediately, but I have ordered the next book and am looking forward to it! My buddy reader is in the third book now and still loving the series, so I have high hopes.

mr.mercedesAbout the book: Detective Bill Hodges is retired, but a few unsolved cases continue to nag at him even though he’s not supposed to work on them any longer and has lost his access to police resources. When he receives a letter from Mr. Mercedes, the unknown culprit of a terrible hit-and-run case that left eight dead and another four wounded, he knows he should turn it in as evidence, but can’t shake the feeling that starting a private dialogue with the killer will provide more leads. Meanwhile, Mr. Mercedes continues to watch Hodges’ house, hoping that his gloating, accusatory letter will be just the thing to convince Hodges to commit suicide– adding another tally to Mr. Mercedes’s body count and eliminating the detective who lead investigations into his biggest crime. But if Hodges’s death doesn’t pan out, Mr. Mercedes has some other deadly ideas, and his recent conversation with Hodges might hold the only clues to stopping his plans.

“The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.”

I’ve seen Mr. Mercedes classified as mystery, thriller, and yes, horror, but I would say it’s a pretty straightforward crime novel. King always excels at characterization, and above all else, this book is an examination of character– of a heartless killer and of the bizarre cast of accomplices trying to thwart him. Often mystery novels that feature a whimsical band of misfits chasing a notorious criminal seem overly fabricated to me– the fact that these unique mystery solvers came together in the first place feels so constructed and unlikely (see Night Film). But Hodges’s friends are another story. Jerome is Hodges’s neighbor and already a friend before Mr. Mercedes comes along. Janey and Holly’s interest in the case makes perfect sense as they are relatives of one of Mr. Mercedes’s victims. Even the people Hodges interviews for clues act like real people, rather than the overly chatty sources of necessary info-dumping that mysteries often rely on. Each character and their motives are clear and distinct– including the killer’s.

That’s right, one of the highlights of Mr. Mercedes is that King provides plenty of perspective chapters direct from inside the mind of the killer. This is why I hesitate to call this novel a mystery or thriller; seeing this man’s side of the story takes out a high percentage of the guesswork and fright for the reader. We know where he is and what he’s doing. But I thought Mr. Mercedes’s sections of the book were highly engaging and indeed the most interesting parts of the book, so I didn’t mind learning early the identity of the killer. In my opinion, King does an excellent job of balancing the how’s and why’s, which lets him get away with offering the who’s and what’s at the front and center.

The only flaw for me was the increasing thinness of Hodges’ excuses for refusing to involve the police. What seemed a bad but understandable decision in the beginning eventually turns toward the unreasonable. When things really start going bad, he keeps going basically on momentum alone, and even though all the signs point to needing professional help and reinforcements, Hodges keeps refusing to do that. With more lives at stake, his excuses make less sense, and believability definitely takes a hit when his “assistants” start spouting their own flimsy excuses:

“Speaking carefully, enunciating each word as if to make up for what has probably been a lifetime of mumbling, Holly says, ‘No one can catch him but you.’ “

But those excuses come late in the game, and by that point I was almost too invested in the story to care why the “heroes” close themselves off so entirely. Perhaps with a little more attention to this question, King would’ve been able to provide a more satisfactory answer– the problem seemed more like an oversight than the product of poor planning or writing. Overall, this book was a fun time with a fascinating(ly dark) plot unlike anything I’ve encountered before, even in previous King novels.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This one isn’t going to be joining my all-time favorites list, but it is on my list of favorite King novels. It was a fast, interesting read that held my attention 100% from start to finish. I’ll definitely be reading on, though it might take me a couple of months to get around to it. October was a great time of year to start this series though, and I’m glad I finally picked it up. This one’s been sitting on my shelf since… probably 2013, so I’m glad I finally picked it up.

Further recommendations:

  • Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil is actually the third book in what is currently a 4-book series by J. K. Rowling (Galbraith is a pen name). Unless you’re really into the will-they-won’t-they dynamic between the detective and his assistant, there’s really no reason to read the first two before this one, which was by far the strongest of the three that I’ve read so far. It also features interesting chapters from the killer’s perspective.
  • Caroline Kepnes’ YouAgain, if you like getting Mr. Mercedes’s whacked perspective, this is another fascinating story from the eyes of the deranged.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant