Finders Keepers is billed as both a sequel and the middle-part to a trilogy, both signs that usually mean you’ll have to play catch-up to understand everything that’s happened prior all while anticipating the ‘real’ ending coming later. Notice I said usually; this is Stephen King we’re talking about, and in his world things are seldom ever usual.
In what began with last year’s Mr. Mercedes, continues here, though reading through King’s first real attempt at sausage-style detective fiction isn’t required to enjoy or even follow what’s going on here. Sure, it helps, to be at least somewhat familiar with events in that book, as you’ll get that certain satisfaction from connecting the dots and scenes in ways familiar to the world-building seen in other King books and series. More than anything, however, this is King being King, using his enviable storytelling powers to actually tell a story, to bring something different to a genre saturated with all the nuance and predictability of a TV serial. So different, in fact, that the required ‘hero’ of the series, retired detective Bill Hodges, doesn’t even show up until the halfway point. And that’s just fine, because there’s plenty else going on.
Much has happened in the years since the events of the first book much has happened, we learn. After taking down Brady Hartsfield, the lunatic whose crazed rampage in a stolen Mercedes-Benz SL500 earned him the nickname Mr. Mercedes, Bill has teamed up with Holly Gibney to form “Finders Keepers”, a detective agency-of-sorts that’s given both new leases on life. Holly, an emotional wreck even before the death of her cousin Janey Patterson (the woman who originally brought Hodges to the Hartsfield case, and would become his lover), has mellowed considerably into her new role as Bill’s business partner and apparent protector.
This story begins much sooner, however. Back in 1978 we meet John Rothstein, an octogenarian writer (an amalgamation of J.D. Salinger and John Updike’s Rabbit series), whose reclusivity and escape to rural New Hampshire has left his millions of fans wanting more. Rothstein, like Salinger/Updike, had captured the zeitgeist of America in the 60s with his Runner series, which chronicled the fictional life of his most treasured creation, Jimmy Gold, even earning him a Time magazine cover blazoned with the title “AMERICA’S RECLUSIVE GENIUS”.
But Rothstein has long retired, secluding himself away from society and, presumably, stopped writing entirely. Or maybe not. One of those fans, a young Morris Bellamy, redheaded with even redder lips, has learned the reclusive author has been busy writing for years, scribbling his thoughts into tiny Moleskin notebooks, relegating them to his safe instead of sharing them with the world. Fuming, Bellamy enlists a few thugs with the intention of liberating the author of his work and into the hands of a greedy books dealer – for a considerable profit, no doubt.
While they do find piles of cash in the safe, the real treasure – for Hartsfield – are the dozens of Moleskin notebooks, filled with Rothstein’s unpublished work. Unfortunately, Rothstein isn’t the befuddled old fool many took him for and things quickly go sour, leaving Bellamy to stash the bundles both cash and notebooks into an antique trunk, burying it near his home to deal with at a later time. As fate would have it, that would be a considerably longer time than he could have imagined.
It’s here King recalls his own Shawshank Redemption, tracing Morris’ prison existence from fresh meat to seasoned lifer, following his decades of imprisonment as he survives by using his gifts as a writer of personal notes and legal drafts for other prisoners, hoping that someday, somehow, he’d be released and would finally read the Rothstein notebooks. They were his rightful property, after all, and he deserved them.
Then we meet teenager Pete Saubers, whose connection with the first novel I’ll keep secret (you’re welcome), himself an aspiring writer, has the amazing fortune of coming across Bellamy’s stash by accident. The cash comes in handy, of course, as Pete anonymously doles out monthly bundles to help his cash-strapped family survive tough times, both financially and emotionally. The Moleskins, however, weave their own special spell on his young mind as young Pete not only discovers a life for the published work of John Rothstein, but what appears to be a treasure of unpublished scribblings – including entirely new novels apparently showing the further adventures of Jimmy Gold.
King is too good a storyteller to simply let his story play out in a straight line. Instead he takes us on a journey spanning decades that alternates between narratives, switching between Bellamy and Saubers timelines, and soon Bill Hodges’ Finders Keepers, as the two Rothstein fans will soon become inevitable rivals on a path that leads to one of the most memorable showdowns I’ve read in some time, one that recalls some of King’s best – and most disturbing – late 80s work.
It’s only through the narrative magic of convenience and coincidences – both hallmarks of the genre – that helps close the circle and bring everyone together. When Pete’s troubling behavior starts to worry his little sister Tina she calls on her best friend, Barbara, who just happens to be the younger sister of Jerome Robinson, Bill’s tech whiz kid friend who helped Bill and Holly take down Brady Hartsfield. Bill’s an ex-detective, and with his and Holly’s help surely they can find out what’s been troubling Pete and put the whole thing to rest. What could be simpler?
With his obsessive nature and homicidal tendencies King fans might see a little bit of Misery’s Annie Wilkes crazed fan in Morris Bellamy, and you’d be partly right. But while Annie held fiction writer Paul Sheldon hostage whilst he resurrect her beloved Misery Chastain, Morris Bellamy is something else entirely; a fan so completely and utterly devoted not to the craft, but the crafted. He interprets the world Rothstein created as a reflection of his own, meaning Jimmy Gold’s failure to live up to Bellany’s expectations set in his first two adventures is tantamount to a cruel betrayal in the third.
One wonders if held hostage Rothstein, so full of piss and vinegar, would have submitted to the crazed idea of writing a fictional payoff to stay alive.
Frankly, had King removed the Bill Hodges/detective angle from Finders Keepers entirely we’d still be left with one of his most compelling localized tales in years. True, this is King playing in a genre that many expect conventionality and disposability from, and it’s not hard to see the finale (however spectacular) miles away. But the buildup is so well executed, so entertaining, that we’re willing to put up with a little predictability to get there. It even answers questions about the first book you never thought you had, even about characters you may have forgotten about entirely.
A last minute stinger, however, cinematic perfection had it been filmed, will likely divide those who thought they had this series pegged. I wouldn’t reveal it for the world, but it’s a chilling reminder of what author we’re dealing with. This has been an interesting series so far, one King plans to conclude with the upcoming End of Watch. Rest assured, horror fans, nothing stays dormant in King’s land for long, even the dead.