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End of Watch (2016)
Book Reviews

End of Watch (2016)

King concludes his Bill Hodges trilogy on an epic, supernaturally high note.

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The term “trilogy” is thrown about so haphazardly these days you’d probably mistake it for being something special or noteworthy. It used to mean something. Now, in this day of [Insert Title] Series, connected universes, and other franchise-building exercises in keeping the cash-cow pumps of genre fiction flowing, the relatively ‘limited’ art of conclusive storytelling seems to have taken a backseat to series, series, and more series still. They never end!

How wonderful that End of Watch, Stephen King’s supposed concluding chapter to his styled “Bill Hodges Trilogy”, appears to be just that: a proper capper to what’s been one of his most delightful and focused literary romps in decades.

It may seem a little hypocritical not to deride King for joining the sequel/trilogy bandwagon, given that he practically invented the “connected universe” of things all by himself, pushed out countless sequels (The Dark Tower), and has recently begun to sequelize his earliest work (The Shining via Doctor Sleep). If that wasn’t enough, King has already authored several mammoth epics whose sheer size make Tolkien seem like a literary slacker in comparison, if sliced apart for commercial reasons, would have made acceptable trilogies by themselves (IT, The Stand come to mind).

But none have been as consciously, progressively marketed as such like Bill Hodge’s three-book cycle. And because this is the concluding entry to King’s honest-to-goodness, no fooling trilogy, there will probably be spoilers. There’s definitely spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Like its predecessor While End of Watch opens once again pulling us back to the events of the murderous Brady Hartsfield’s 2009 ‘Mercedes Killing’, where he viciously mowed down a group of job-seekers, from a new perspective, filling in more details about the event’s ancillary victims, before returning to the present day of 2016. It also serves more as a direct sequel to the events in Mr. Mercedes, practically discarding the events of middle-book Finders Keepers (which functioned just fine as a standalone story) entirely.

It’s not long before we rejoin old friends Kermit William Hodges, i.e. Bill Hodges, the retired detective who founded Finders Keepers, an unlicensed private investigation firm with Holly Gibney, a brilliant, but troubled middle-aged woman who’s become something of a surrogate daughter for the retired detective (and he, in turn, a surrogate father). Together, the two hunt down bail skippers and whatever might come their way.

A surprise text from Pete Huntley, Hodge’s old partner, brings things full-circle. We learn that Huntley is on the verge of retirement himself, ready to pull the pin: end of watch. Pete’s current partner, Isabelle Jaynes, has ambitions well beyond mere detective work – think administration – and as such isn’t keen on rattling too many cages before her expected promotion. The two are now investigating the death of Martine Stover, whom we learned in the opening was rendered a quadriplegic after being mowed down by Hartsfield, who along with her mother appear to be victims of a murder-suicide.

Sensing Isabelle’s apathy, Pete thinks Hodge’s familiarity with the Mercedes Killings may give him an edge in the investigation, so he invites Hodges and Holly to come take a look. It was a clean suicide, they note, handled professionally. The only thing standing out as unusual is the cryptic letter “Z” drawn on the bathroom counter with magic marker.

At the center of it all lay the Zappit Commander, a discontinued tablet-like device packed with games, including an intoxicating demo for one called “Fishin’ Hole”, complete with with its own hypnotic theme tune and irresistible little fish swimming around. Holly discovers a Zappit in the home of Martine Stover, but doesn’t share this find with Peter or Isabelle (who doesn’t like her, she insists). Hodges knows he’s seen a gadget just like it somewhere, but he’s not sure where. It’s not long before the eventual, if improbably, link is made: Brady Hartsfield.

Hartsfield, despite being whacked into a near-vegetative state by Hodge’s trusty ‘Happy Slapper’, a ball bearing-filled sock Holly used to stop him from blowing up thousands of kids at a boy band concert at the end of Mr. Mercedes, has been a busy little beaver. Confined to his room at the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic at Kiner Memorial, he’s what the staff secretly call a gork – “the most cataclysmically injured” – seemingly of little harm or interest to anyone.

Hartsfield was an “architect of suicide” as Holly describes him, gifted in the ways of inducing others to kill themselves. Let’s not forget this was how we first met Bill Hodges in Mr. Mercedes; overweight, depressed, his father’s .38 Smith & Wesson at the ready to put an end to his misery. How could Hartsfield possibly be involved in the recent suicide deaths when he’s barely alive himself, practically a vegetable?

Now Hodges and Holly are in a race to discover who – or what – is behind the growing rash of suicides before it’s too late. We also learn that Hodges is battling another enemy, one he’s got little chance in defeating: late-stage pancreatic cancer, and the prognosis isn’t good. His own ‘end of watch’ is coming, and the clock is ticking.

The cover to End of Watch includes the usual author tie-in for Stephen King for previous entries in the Bill Hodges Trilogy: author of Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers. But it just as easily could’ve been “author of Firestarter or Carrie”, considering how King returns to more familiar territory to make his psycho-killer even more frightening than ever: telekinesis.

While the first two books largely discarded King’s penchant for the supernatural in the pursuit of a more traditional detective adventure (even going so far to distance its universe as separate from King’s already massive world-building) we could have guessed King’s inclinations couldn’t stay silent for long (how could they?). The final scene in Finders Keepers confirmed this.

If the blending feels natural, despite everything we’ve been conditioned to believe prior to its introduction, it’s because the seeds were always there. It’s not unlike listening to your favorite experimental band attempt straightforward rock, only to have that heroic solo escape and blast free from the bonds of conformity.

The hospital’s head of neurology, Dr. Felix Babineau, whose moral compass hasn’t pointed north in a long time, has been secretly feeding Hartsfield an experimental drug, Cerebellin, which is implied as boosting Hartfield’s natural psychic abilities. It might be a stretch to explain away the ‘supernatural’ as techno-medical (see the Hypnocil drug from Nightmare on Elm Street for another example of this), but to his credit when telekinesis and body-swapping are made real King treats them as more utilitarian than supernatural.

What makes End of Watch so enjoyable is how effortlessly King weaves back and forth from his heroes and villain, holding true to the more predictable conventions of detective fiction when necessary and leading to the ultimate, expected confrontation between good and evil. We’ve known who the villain is since the original book. King’s trick with the despicable Hartsfield is to make us privy to his inner workings, seeing his evolution first hand from stock serial killer into terrifying supernatural psycho-killer.

We also know the hero, or heroes: Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney, two lost souls who not only found comfort in each others during the worst of times, but are resolutely good people. Hodges puts the safety of those around him above his own, fighting painfully through his encroaching cancer to keep a potential nightmare scenario from happening. And yes, the fedora makes an appearance.

There’s also Jerome Robinson, Hodge’s old neighborhood kid with smarts and good humor, as well as the third of the trio. He makes abbreviated – but critical – appearances here, but it becomes obvious why King chose to keep the focus on Hodges and Holly in this final chapter; Jerome has a loving family already and was always going to be OK. Holly, without Bill Hodges by her side, was never a sure thing. And likely the other way around, too.

Hodges close-knit relationship with Holly forms the real heart of this series, among the most emotionally resonant King has ever written and one whose real investment lay beyond a marriage of convenience that fully understands that being needed is a great thing. “Maybe the great thing,” Holly intuits.

End of Watch is the conclusion to the Bill Hodges trilogy fans and these characters have been waiting for, even if it breaks a few conventions to get there. Throughout the series King has created one of his most despicable villains, as well as some of his most inspired heroes, delivering an epic confrontation as satisfying as anything we’ve seen from the author. I’ll miss the relationship between Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney, among the best-written and most heartfelt King’s ever written, but this is truly the sendoff they deserve.

It was announced some time ago that we’d be seeing a filmed series based on these books in the near-future; hardly a surprise, given that just about everything King has ever written – or will ever write – is destined for cinematic reinvention. If handled well the series could make for spectacular entertainment as the books are practically screenplays already.