End of Watch

By Stephen King

(Hodder & Stoughton)
★★★

There are several ways to approach End of Watch. It is American horror and fantasy novelist Stephen King’s first real venture into crime fiction. It’s the final part of a trilogy that began with Mr Mercedes and continued with Finders Keepers . And it stages the endgame between the series’ hero, Bill Hodges, and its villain, Brady Hartsfield, who in episode one ploughed a vintage Mercedes into a crowd of jobseekers before threatening a pop concert full of teenagers.

Perhaps the best way to describe End of Watch, however, is as a self-consciously late work. That’s late as in King, the near veteran (he’s now 68), and late as in death. Death is hardly a new concern in King’s work: he has probably killed more people in more inventive ways than almost any other writer. What is relatively recent is the preoccupation with the more gradual tolls taken by time and age.

King’s title is cop-speak for an officer’s final days before retirement, which Hodges’ former colleague, Pete, is experi­encing as the plot starts. But the broader existential impli­ca­tions of the phrase properly apply to Hodges himself, who after a couple of plot delays is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Death as it stalks End of Watch is represented not by axe-wielding maniacs or even nasty Hartsfield, but by two far more prolific killers: disease and suicide. While the first afflicts Hodges, the latter is Hartsfield’s particular obses­sion: his plot to murder thousands at the pop concert was meant to climax with his own death. Unluckily for humanity, he ended up in a coma, albeit one that hardly kept a bad man down. The flickers of supernatural powers that were glimpsed in previous instalments are now fully operational.

In King’s early masterpiece, Carrie, telekinetic powers drove the horror and provided a metaphor for the oppressed and suppressed emotional life of our heroine. Here, Hartsfield’s abilities feel mainly a matter of plot contrivance, enabling our otherwise petulant and immobile baddie to get out of bed, and from coma into reality. Eventually this journey requires more than simply using mind power to unhook a woman’s bra, which the ever-randy King cannot resist. He rigs a literary McGuffin through which Hartsfield projects himself into other people’s minds and bodies. Once installed like the nastiest computer virus, he gets to work suggesting ways the invaded hosts can either do his bidding or end their lives.

Despite its crudeness, this mind control proves an intriguing device: in part because the passages depicting frail individuals falling to pieces are arguably the most powerful of the novel, but largely because Hartsfield’s method so closely mirrors King’s own. For decades, King has insinuated himself into readers’ imaginations with a voice that speaks of ordinary things (here: movies, music, hospital appointments, computers) only to unveil monsters lurking beneath our beds. In Christine, it was a teenage boy’s love for a classic car. In Cujo, it was a St Bernard with rabies. In Pet Sematary, it was thoughts of what might lurk after death.

Sadly, End of Watch lacks these novels’ unfettered intensity. Hartsfield is unpleasant, sure. But his modus operandi – plotting doom from his bedroom – makes him come across like a spoiled teenager rather than a master criminal. Whatever spookiness Hartsfield’s mind powers are supposed to convey is ruined by the means of projection: namely an old-school games console that hypnotises Hartsfield’s chosen victims, allowing him to invade their subconscious.

King clearly has a fundamental beef with modern technology. In his 2006 novel Cell, a global pandemic was spread via mobile-phone calls. In his short story Big Driver, a romance writer’s reliance on GPS mirrored her careless attitude to life and work. Both of these were rough but effective shockers that delved into our enslavement to all manner of hand-held devices.

End of Watch’s portrait of killer computer games is both unoriginal (David Cronenberg mucked about with something similar in his film eXistenZ) and oddly tedious. Cell didn’t bother with too much science, possibly because it had enough faith in the velocity of its B-movie premise. (And the notion that obsolete, hand-held Gameboys are attractive to teenage girls feels far-fetched, to say the least.)

Adding to the general sense of thinness are the main characters. If Hartsfield is a sulky teen, Hodges is likeable and vulnerable. His race against cancer lends some much-needed urgency to proceedings that the story other­wise doesn’t earn on its own terms. But while his illness is capably described, it never entirely hits home emotionally, whether as dread, desper­ation, fear, denial or acceptance.

Book review: Finders Keepers by Stephen King - thrill of the chase

Hodges is outshone by Holly, his erstwhile partner in detection and a damaged soul for whom any human intimacy is painful. Holly’s trainspotterish film-buffery speaks towards her creator, who litters the novel with quotes by everyone from Robert Frost to metal band Judas Priest. Dedicated to fellow novelist Thomas Harris, the story even has a char­acter named Frederica Bimmel Linklatter, a nod to Harris’ book The Silence of the Lambs and Buffalo Bill’s first victim. At least King’s heart is with Holly. One feels her struggles, which are often as simple as making eye contact, or contemplating a future without her best friend.

Oddly, the person King reminds me most of these days is Bob Dylan. They are two greats in their artistic dotage, and like Dylan, whose two previous albums are filled with cover ver­sions, King seems to be exploring the genres and stories that formed him. He honours these influences and tradi­tions without ever escaping them, or imposing his own considerable voice on them. Droning on endlessly about Wi-fi might update hoary old mind-control shockers, but it does little to improve them.

Personal possibilities tease. King has used recent out­ings to explore matters close to home, from alcoholism to therapy. I sincerely hope Hodges’ health problems are not shared by his creator, and that the suicidal tendencies of many bit-part players reflect past despairs. I worry that King is simply writing too much. Perhaps, like Hodges, fears of time running short compel him to produce at his current prodigious rates.

End of Watch is perfectly adequate. But when has King or his devoted readers settled for adequate?