END OF WATCH, by Stephen King. Scribner, 432 pp., $30.
Stephen King once confessed that there were times in his life when he thought “all the clamoring voices” in his head would make him insane. That may not have happened — yet — but this prolific author has never had any trouble making his characters insane, the most memorable of whom, at least in recent memory, might be Brady Hartsfield.
Readers first met Brady in King’s 2014 crime thriller, “Mr. Mercedes,” the critically acclaimed and Edgar Award-winning first installment in the Bill Hodges trilogy, which concludes this month with the series’ outstanding final novel, “End of Watch.”
“End of Watch” unfolds six years after Brady killed eight and maimed several others in “Mr. Mercedes,” where he drove a stolen Mercedes-Benz into a crowd outside a city job fair. Later in that book, he would’ve killed hundreds more with a bomb at a rock concert if it weren’t for Hodges, a retired police detective, and his quirky sidekick, Holly Gibney.
Before that bomb went off, Holly put Brady’s lights out with Hodges’ trusty weapon: a ball-bearing loaded sock called the Happy Slapper. Ever since the blow (and throughout the second novel in the trilogy, “Finders Keepers”) Brady has appeared to dwell in a “twilight world”at a local brain injury clinic.
To most who meet him, the murderous invalid seems more likely to be found “poking himself in the eye with his fork” than plotting mass murder. But Hodges, a frequent and suspicious visitor who’s now battling a nasty form of cancer, has never quite bought it.
“I was sure of it then and I’m sure of it now,” he tells Holly early in “End of Watch.” “He just sits there, but inside he’s the same human wasp that killed those people at City Center and tried to kill a whole lot more at Mingo Auditorium.”
His concern, we soon learn, isn’t without merit. It turns out that Brady’s quack doctor has been pumping him full of an experimental drug “developed in a Bolivian neuro lab.” Now, the latent killer has tapped into something preternatural inside his damaged brain: a mysterious power that gives him lethal control over his victims’ thoughts.
And he’s got a plan to make sure they start thinking like cult leader Jim Jones’s suicidal followers.
“End of Watch” gives us King at the height of his powers. Masterfully plotted, the novel is propelled toward its page-blurring conclusion by two deadly forces: Hodges’ advancing disease and Brady’s relentless murderous impulse. “At first it will be just the ones who were closest to doing it anyway,” Brady muses on his mass-suicide scheme, “but they will lead by example and there will be many more. They’ll march off the edge of life like stampeding buffalo going over a cliff.”
The viral spread of ideas and behavior online is a critical component of that plan, and in “End of Watch,” King, a deft social-media user himself, describes the power and peril of our hyper-connected world. “You can find anything on the Internet,” King writes. “Some of it is helpful. Some of it is interesting. Some of it is funny. And some of it is . . . awful.”
Later, he perfectly articulates how Internet troll culture can harm the vulnerable. “Ordinary fears, the ones kids like this live with as a kind of unpleasant background noise, can be turned into ravening monsters,” he writes. “Small balloons of paranoia can be inflated until they are as big as floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”
There’s much for fans of hard-boiled detective novels to like in “End of Watch.” We’re reminded, for instance, that bodies “never look more dead than in police photos,” and when an informant offers Hodges, a former alcoholic, a drink, he begs off in a way any tough would admire. “When it comes to booze,” he says, “I spilled more than you’ll ever drink, honeypie.”
“End of Watch,” as any King novel might, delivers at least one scene that may keep you up at night, but there are also several laughs here. One of the best arrives early in the book, when Hodges considers postponing his cancer treatment until he can lay his suspicions about Brady to rest. His doctor poses a question: “If you were standing on top of a burning building and a helicopter appeared and dropped a rope ladder, would you say you needed to think about it before climbing up?”
It’s hard not to imagine the delighted look on this virtuoso author’s face as he typed his hero’s slick reply. “I might,” Hodges says, “if the helicopter in question only had two gallons of gas left in the tank.”