The Short Version: In 1978, Morris Bellamy killed reclusive author Joseph Rothstein and took both his money and his unpublished notebooks. But he gets sent to jail for another crime and so the notebooks and the money sit, untouched – until a young boy finds them in 2014. But Bellamy gets his freedom that year too and he wants what he’s waited all these years for…
The Review: So while this is nominally the second book in a trilogy, the connective tissue of said trilogy – the trio of Hodges, Jerome, and Holly (as well as the villain of Mr. Mercedes, Brady Hartsfield) – doesn’t appear until over a third of the way into the book. As a result, there’s a strange imbalance in this book as compared to the first novel – and to what, it would seem, is coming next. That doesn’t make for a bad read, au contraire, but it does mean that this book suffers from middle-novel syndrome in regards to our original heroes. It’s almost as though King had the idea for the story and then found a way to insert the Finders Keepers gang (that, by the way, is apparently the name of Hodges & Holly’s company now). Of course, he’s never really done this trilogy thing before – the Dark Tower books don’t quite count because they were written over so much time / were seven (now eight) books / have so much more going on – so I can understand it. It’s fascinating to watch a writer you think you know inside and out trying something new and surprising you in the process.
We were all pretty surprised, of course, by Mr. Mercedes. He won an Edgar for that novel just a few weeks ago and his speech, if you haven’t seen it, is worth the quick watch (it’s here). King himself sounds a little surprised: he had doubts about writing a straight crime novel, but he silenced those and turned out a excellent one. Of course, we should’ve expected that. If there’s one thing that King can reliably called on to perform every single time, it is to write a gripping novel no matter the genre or form – and the reason we can rely on him for that is that he’s never been about genre. Instead, he writes about people. Those people just happen to end up in genre-y circumstances. And the people he’s created here are some of his very best.
Pete Saubers and Morris Bellamy, the two men (well, one’s a man and the other still a boy) who are transfixed by the contents of this trunk, are some of his best creations. Pete stands in a long line of King youths, all of whom try to make the best decisions without realizing the consequences because they are so young. It’s the innocence of youth and the stripping away of that innocence. And it continues to impress me that as King moves farther and farther away from that innocent age that he remains able to capture it so well. Every once and a while he’ll stumble as he tries to capture some new fad (the man really loves to describe a fist-bump as a knuckle-dap), but I think it’s because he recognizes that the more things seem to change, the more they actually stay the same. I found myself imagining what I would’ve done in Pete’s place, had I discovered those notebooks and that money, and I realize that I probably would’ve done the same thing(s). Well, except for the final decision that Pete makes – but extenuating circumstances, etc.
Speaking of those notebooks and that money. The magic of King’s work is that he makes everything so real with so seemingly little effort. Joseph Rothstein is a made-up writer – he’s not even been mentioned, so far as I know, in any other King novels. He’s a bit Salinger (with the reclusive thing) and a bit Updike (The Runner instead of Rabbit, Run) and the only thing we’ll get to read of his are these little excerpts King sprinkles throughout the novel… but damned if I don’t want to read the whole Runner cycle. Damned if I didn’t feel a pulse of excitement at the prospect of discovering a lost text (or several!) from an author who I was told had no more to give. It’s the Harper Lee thing: we’re all excited for Watchman, even if you don’t want to be, because we were told there was nothing else… and now we find that there is. Even if it isn’t as good, it’s still more. We always want more. Of course, King gives in to some wish fulfillment in making the two unpublished Runner novels (especially the last one, if Pete’s telling is true) even better than what had come before – that’s always the hope, isn’t it?
But on the list of lost/imaginary books that I’ll never get to read, I think these Rothstein novels are up there with Cardenio and The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco. King’s imagination has infected mine, for lack of a better word, and now I’m as hungry to read those books as Bellamy and Saubers and, presumably, the rest of that Kingverse.
The connective tissue of the trilogy appears now, first as background (Pete’s dad was injured in the City Center massacre) and then when Bill appears working an ordinary case. We take a little time to catch up with him and Holly and, later, Jerome – but their coming together here feels serendipitous, just as this case happens to fall into their laps. Although, at first, it isn’t much of a case – just a hunch, really. Just a worried little sister.
But as Pete and Bellamy circle each other unknowingly – Bellamy, now freed from prison, discovers that the books are missing but he doesn’t know Pete has them (at first) – and the tension rises, the reader has to know that the Finders Keepers gang will appear. That they will have something to do with saving the day – and they do.
And I don’t want to say that that’s a disappointment, but it felt a little predictable that it would go down the way that it did. Oh, don’t get me wrong: the tension is higher than high even as you know that Hodges isn’t going to convince Pete to talk or that Pete’s somehow going to slip out a different door or that Bellamy will, at some point, find out about Pete… but when the plot kicks in, it does push the characterization to the side a little bit. And having spent more than half of the book dealing with characters and letting the plot slowly wind up, it was a little bit of a bummer to let the plot take over so quickly and so completely.
Of course, as the novel wound down, King dropped two big hints about what comes next. The Suicide Prince, the book is going to be called – and Brady Hartsfield is going to be back. That much King has said in public… but having now read the book, it’s clear what the trilogy is building towards. And I’m a little curious to see the way that it will play out. For, without giving too much away, it seems like King’s basic truest nature will assert itself – after all, the weird is never all that far away in the Kingverse. But it’s nice to know that he can still root everything in the realest of the real when he wants to: the desire to read, the passion spurred by authors, and the questions of growing up that never really get answered.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The plot takes a beautiful while to wind up and it’s a little bit of a disappointment when it does cut loose, although the ride is absolutely exhilarating once it does. Still, the back half of this book makes the whole thing feel so much like the second novel in a trilogy instead of a standalone entry. Morris Bellamy’s obsession with Rothstein is up there with Annie Wilkes and Mark David Chapman – and watching both him and Pete grapple with their love of an author who didn’t necessarily give them what they wanted (even after giving them more than they ever dreamed of) was King at his very best. It’s just a shame that the denouement felt a little rote and the aftermath even a touch unbelievable. But it’s okay, because the novel ends with King bating the hook for book three… and I cannot believe I’ll have to wait until next June.