I’m pretty confident when I say that when Stephen King stops writing, the world of literature will never be the same. His uncanny ability to pump out wholly original stories every single year is astounding to me. What makes it even more remarkable is that King manages to subvert genres right when they are on the precipice of extinction, breathing new life into staid conventions all the while infusing ever so subtle flourishes of the supernatural. In recent years, King has seemingly devoted his interest to writing straight-up crime thrillers. There are no menacing clowns hiding in the sewer grates, nor are there any invisible domes encapsulating a small town in Maine. Instead, the monsters are not so literal. Nope, King’s new style of monster is the omnipresent kid at the local Best Buy who also happens to be a serial killer. He’s the granola carnie at the local amusement park who is all pimples and teeth but is a pulsating maniac underneath the surface. In more ways that not, King’s new type of monster is more terrifying than the ones that have popped up in works from IT and Needful Things in that the creature is not an inaccessible being but someone, quite literally, in your own backyard.
I adored Mr. Mercedes, King’s full-blown hard-boiled detective book. It was King in top form. Starting with the titular character plowing down several townsfolk at a job fair in, well, a Mercedes, the book presents a town healing from such an unheard of mass murder. The town is full of typical King-ian characters, from the deranged serial killer with mommy issues, to the former cop with a heart of gold, to the smarty-pants kid who wants to help save the day without losing his life doing it. It’s a thrilling read; engaging and compelling right to the very last page. This is why I was head over heels excited when I heard that King had written a sequel entitled “Finders Keepers” that was to feature several key characters from Mr. Mercedes.
It is a grave understatement when I say that I threw myself into the novel. Delighted to have a new Stephen King book to devour, I must have gotten a third of the way through the book when I began to ask myself, when does the story even begin? I say this for a few reasons. I try not to read the full sleeve of a book by an author I consistently enjoy reading. It’s like watching a movie trailer: all the good stuff is given away up front. So what I knew from reading about Finders Keepers is that it continued the narrative begun in Mr. Mercedes, had a few of the same characters, and that a found treasure somehow figured into the storyline. Well, by page 150, I had still yet to reconnect with the characters I dug in Mr. Mercedes.
Listen, I totally get the importance of setting up the foundation of a novel for events to come. I understand the importance of establishing character motivations and intent, as well as forming an overarching tone and pace that will come to define a book as a whole. I love foreshadowing. And like I said before, I am a big Stephen King fan. But 157 pages of set up is too much, even for me.
Sure, the set up in Finders Keepers is pivotal for the remainder of the book’s plot. We meet Morris Bellamy, a troubled kid, who has a pedantic mother and an unhealthy fascination with an author named John Rothstein. SPOILER ALERT: I’m ’bout to get into the book’s meat and potatoes here. Stop reading if you do not want to find out what indeed happens in the book! The book quite literally starts out with a bang with Morris murdering Rothstein and his conspirators, hiding a treasure box full of money and unpublished manuscripts from the reclusive author. Morris soon finds himself in jail after raping a young woman whilst black out drunk, and spends his life in jail until he is granted parole upon turning 59. All that motivates him to survive prison is his imminent reunion with the books, and the hopes of selling them for lots of money.
Concurrently, there’s the story of Pete Saubers, a young kid who just happens to be living in Morris’ childhood home. He soon finds the treasure chest in the area and shares the money (via unmarked letters) with his financially challenged family. His father was a victim in Mr. Mercedes, acting as the first link with the prior book. Pete, also a fan of the author that Morris had murdered, reads the works and is, too, fascinated by the unpublished words. His enthrallment with Rothstein’s words and his fictitious hero Jimmy Gold is much healthier than Morris’ obsession.
Ok, so you know where this is going. Morris gets out of prison to find the books (and money) gone. Pete tries to sell the books to Morris’ former friend who tries to blackmail Pete in that he knows the works are stolen. Morris goes ballistic and wants the books back which he believes are rightfully his, and Pete is one interaction away from having a nervous breakdown from worry that his parents are going to find out that he was the one sending them money for all that time.
Into the story comes Detective Hodges, key character in Mr. Mercedes. He’s contacted by Tina, Pete’s really annoying little sister, because she feels that her brother is up to no good but is just so worried about him. This little Tina, and maybe it’s just me, is pretty grating. She’s worried for her brother, sure, but her tendency to shed tears and rat out her brother really makes her one of my least favorite characters in Finders Keepers.
The story then becomes a cat and mouse game. Morris is trying to find his books, killing whatever comes in his way, and Pete tries to outsmart both a sly bookseller and Morris himself to no avail. The climax is a bit under-cooked and easy. I was a bit unsatisfied in that I felt that King sort of pandered with this sequel. His dialogue and references to pop culture and technology (He wants to see The Purge: Anarchy at one point, while his friend wants to see The Fault In Our Stars) are totally unnecessary. Pete comes across as a good kid who, like his sister, is excessively nervous and twitchy. Holly, Hodges’ colleague and all around charmer, comes out of this book without any more development than in Mr. Mercedes. She’s a nervous, fiercely smart woman. That’s about it.
Is it bad that I found Morris Bellamy to be the most interesting character? I don’t know if this is King’s master way of having the reader root for the villain who is inherently evil. Morris is a no bullshit dude. He just wants the books he stole years ago and live a life of quiet. As previously said, his loot was stolen from him, and his hunt for it back is what I found the most fascinating in the book. He’s damaged, sure, but at least King takes the time to flesh out his character and allows the reader to understand his true motivations. The others are so one-dimensional that their potential demises didn’t really phase me at all.
I zoomed through the book in a few days, comforted by King’s solid prose and ability to create suspense with just a few simple words. The last few pages have Hodges visiting Brady Hartsfield, the villain in Mr. Mercedes who is now a vegetable in the local loony ward. These interactions between Hodges and Brady are classic King. The conversations are limited but the body language extremely telling. They’re like the scenes in which Danny is playing with his trucks in The Overlook Hotel – there might be something supernatural at play, or their might not be. King lets you decide. The last page made the entire book worth reading for me. How, you ask? I won’t give that away. But it makes me certainly think that King has something of a throwback to his earlier works in the sure third book in this series that already has me thrilled.