Joseph Edwin Haeger

Book Review: The Art of the Series: Stephen King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy

Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Stephen King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch) and also digs deeper into the concept of trilogies more broadly.

 

There is an interview with Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino where they are talking about their vampire movie, From Dusk till Dawn. During the interview, they credit their story structure technique to Stephen King: get the audience to invest in the human element before implementing the supernatural forces. It also gives the story an emotional validity once the unbelievable begins to happen; because of the connection we’ve built with the characters, we are more willing to suspend reality even further. In From Dusk till Dawn, we are introduced to a minister in the midst of a crisis of faith. His family is kidnapped by two violent convicts trying to make their way to Mexico. Then they all have to team up to kill some vampires. We see this format used in early King books. Carrie: a young girl has trouble fitting in at school and then starts puberty. Her mother is an overbearing fundamentalist Christian and doesn’t allow Carrie an outlet for her depression. So, telekinesis kicks in and mayhem is let loose on the town. The Shining: an ex-high school teacher with a drinking problem and anger issues does his best to keep his family together. He takes a good-paying job as a hotel caretaker during the off season with the intention of curbing his alcoholism and focusing on his writing. Then he meets a gang of manipulating murder ghosts. Generally, I love this format, but it turns out I’m not a fan when it is spread out over a series as we see in King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy.

King has released Mr. Mercedes (2014), Finders Keepers (2015), and End of Watch (2016) in quick succession making the Bill Hodges Trilogy complete within a few years (I assume to the chagrin of Dark Tower fans who had to wait over twenty years for that whole series). The benefit of dragging my feet on the Bill Hodges Trilogy was I had the opportunity to read them all within a couple months of each other. The small details and callbacks were fresh in my mind while I made my way through each book. I was able to gauge what I liked and didn’t like not only from a macro standpoint, but also from a micro one. I don’t read many series, but I do watch a lot of movies and a key element for a successful trilogy is to have an overarching narrative spanning the whole series while still allowing each movie (or book) to stand alone. This makes it all connected and relevant, but not reliant upon the other movies (or books). The sequels aren’t simply continuations of a character, but chapters in their life.

One of the best trilogies that comes to mind is Pixar’s Toy Story series (and I’m aware there is a fourth one coming and I will stand by the opinion that it’s a mistake). You can watch any of the Toy Story movies out of order and enjoy the narrative at hand without needing to see the other movies. Then when you line them all up you’ll see an overall theme of growth and acceptance. The arc of the trilogy is bittersweet and it is the separation of plots between each entry that leads to the more powerful conclusion—as opposed to having specific events directly influencing the next movie like Back to the Future Part II and Part III and The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions. These tends to feel less like a three-movie set and more like one movie followed by a long sequel—so long, in fact, that they had to break it into two parts. This is also why I don’t necessarily consider The Lord of the Rings a true trilogy; to me it is a serialized movie. Marrying the second two entries does a disservice to the series because it doesn’t give the characters time to learn and/or retrospect. Instead, we’re shown characters acting based on their circumstances and while that can be entertaining it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to great art. In King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy, the first and the last are more closely related than the middle book. This creates an uneven trilogy because it feels like King is setting them into a hierarchy.

Mr. Mercedes follows a newly-retired detective, Bill Hodges, while he unofficially comes back to work in an attempt to track down Brady Hartsfield, a.k.a. The Mercedes Killer. Hartfield stole a big silver Mercedes and drove it into a crowd of unemployed hopefuls waiting for a job fair to open. King provides the story with the backdrop of the financial crisis of 2008 and while we mostly get the plot-driven book we’ve come to expect from King, we get hints of this larger issue here and there.

Finders Keepers is light on Hodges and spends most of its time between Peter Saubers and Morris Bellamy. Years before the bulk of the story takes place, Bellamy breaks into John Rothstein’s—a reclusive author (think Updike mixed with Salinger)—home and steals thousands of dollars of cash and hundreds of notebooks filled with Rothstein’s unpublished work. Before Bellamy can read any of the notebooks, he is sent to prison for an unrelated crime. Twenty years after this theft took place, teenage Saubers stumbles across a buried trunk filled with the money and notebooks. Since his parents had been financially stressed after the crash of 2008 and his dad had been run over in the Mercedes Killer incident and was on disability, Saubers takes it upon himself to anonymously use the money to help the family. A year after the trunk was discovered by Saubers, Bellamy is released from prison and ready to dig into the notebooks. He will stop at nothing to get them back. Hodges pops up here and there, but mostly toward the end and doesn’t provide any real influence on the overall book.

In King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy, the first and the last are more closely related than the middle book. This creates an uneven trilogy because it feels like King is setting them into a hierarchy.

End of Watch comes fully back to Bill Hodges while he battles with a now telekinetic and telepathic Brady Hartsfield. Hodges has stage four cancer, but ignores the reality of the illness while he tries to take down a seemingly invincible Hartsfield who can bounce around different bodies in a way similar to the ’90s thriller Fallen. Hodges is as snarky and no-nonsense as he is in the other books, but End of Watch provides the first time he seems overtly scared of what he is going up against.

Finders Keepers is the strongest of the three and while this is usually the case for middle installments in trilogies, the reasons here are different. Normally, the middle entry doesn’t have to worry about world-building or the start of the hero’s journey, nor does it have to worry about bringing a close to the overall series. Rather, it simply has to be. It’s the most creative freedom the writers and directors will get. They don’t have to give concrete closure or a happy ending (examples: The Dark Knight and The Empire Strikes Back). The middle entry can focus on character and themes. These reasons are not why Finders Keepers is the best in the Bill Hodges Trilogy. The reason it’s the best is because it has the least amount of Hodges. I know this sounds funny, but Bill Hodges is a Stephen King surrogate for his personality and opinions. At this point in his career, most people reading King know what they’re getting into, so some slack can be cut for him when he veers into the same territory he’s been in for the last decade and a half. This is why Finders Keepers was surprising for me—it didn’t focus on the King character that Hodges embraces and he couldn’t write an alternate character in that mold because Hodges still lives in this universe. Instead, we get a well-plotted thriller with fun themes running underneath the story—who owns art once it’s in the world; who has the authority to say what a book is or isn’t about; how much power can a fictional world hold over someone’s reality—and we are given fresh characters. Bellamy might be too bad without any redeeming qualities, but sometimes it is okay to have someone totally evil. A villain you can fully and ultimately root against. Finders Keepers has its fair share of King-isms—I mean, Bill Hodges is in the book—but they don’t take away from what King has given us.

At this point in King’s career, he churns out one or two books a year. I’ve heard rumors that he writes 10,000 words a day and while we can say they’re not all good, I’d venture to say they are all getting used anyway. With this kind of speed and efficiency, it’s not a surprise Danny Torrance from 2013’s Doctor Sleep (and also from The Shining) sounds a lot like Jake Epping from 2011’s 11/22/63. While many of King’s early books had intriguing characters, they also had killer plots. His forte has always been plotting, so it’s no wonder he’s leaning into that in his later years. He focuses on the story and lets things like character and dialogue slide. His leading man isn’t bad (clearly it works)—a no-nonsense, smart, sarcastic dude with a hard, but good heart. This is who Bill Hodges is and it works within the confines of the King universe. After I started reading Finders Keepers and seeing Hodges as a minor character, I wondered if the following book was going to take a similar turn. A new story connected to the other books by the commonality of being a part of the Mercedes Killer attack. This move would have further separated King from his standard mode. This move would have challenged him and pushed him to innovate a little more and reach for a better book. I thought it opened a lot of possibilities for what King could do with the final chapter of his trilogy. Sadly, he didn’t go that way with it.

It’s easy to plop a supernatural element into a story and see how the characters will react (see: Under the Dome), and again, King has relied on this technique in the past. I want to make it clear: I do not dislike this angle—I am very much a fan of King, but I have to admit there are times where it feels like he’s phoning it in. This is also one of the reasons I was pleasantly surprised with Mr. Mercedes. Sure, it had the King stand-in, but Hodges is hunting a deranged man and it is set in the real world. Everything that happens in Mr. Mercedes is grounded in our reality. Everything happening is within the reaches of actual human beings. The same thing in Finders Keepers; there is no greater power than man. Then End of Watch comes along. This was the moment King could have used Brady Hartsfield as his own Hannibal Lecter, but instead elected to make the Mercedes Killer the center of the story once again. And this time he is telekinetic and can control other people’s bodies by inhabiting their minds. It’s like King used the technique Rodriguez and Tarantino credited him with, but waited two years to do so. The issue with doing it in a trilogy is it loses validity instead of gaining it. The first two books set a precedence for the reality these books reside in and it is one that does not include telepathy and telekinesis. Instead of buying into the final chapter of the Bill Hodges Trilogy I found myself resisting and pulling away from it.

All in all, I recommend the Bill Hodges Trilogy. Mr. Mercedes is a hard-boiled story and proves King can do more than supernatural cop-outs. Finders Keepers shows that he might have a few more truly great novels—with intriguing and complex characters—left in him. Both these books have also won over friends that refuse to read King because they think he’s either bad and/or scary. End of Watch you can skim. I hope King has a copy of it nailed to a wall as a reminder for what to avoid. Does Stephen King master the trilogy with Hodges? Like many difficult things, it looks easy from the outside, but is often complex within its simplicity. So, no, King does not nail the trilogy, but he sure as hell proved he can still write a good story.

 

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Joseph Edwin Haeger

Joseph Edwin Haeger is the author of Learn to Swim (University of Hell Press, 2015). His writing has appeared in The Pacific NW Inlander, RiverLit, Hippocampus Magazine, and others. He lives in Spokane, Washington with his wife and son.

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