Finders Keepers is a sort-of sequel to last year’s Mr Mercedes, Stephen King’s first foray into what he called ‘hard-boiled detective fiction’. The new book is not so much hard-boiled as slowly poached, Heston Blumenthal style, in a sous-vide water oven, then finished on a violently hot grill.
King has the popular novelist’s gifts in spades — a flawless sense of pace, an ear for dialogue, an eye for the telling detail, a no-mess-no-fuss approach to characterisation. He also has special insights into the uncanny: his frequent forays into the supernatural are wrenchingly plausible, while his rendering of ‘ordinary’ things — a face, a doorway, the hollowed-out roots of a tree — is steeped in mystery and threat. What he doesn’t have — and it is impossible to say this without seeming supercilious, but it’s the honest truth — is much in the way of literary affect. So when he explores the way readers can grow obsessed with writers (as in Misery and again in Finders Keepers), it’s sometimes hard to see where he imagines the particular power of writing to incite such an obsession might reside.
In the present book, a Great American Novelist, John Rothstein, as reclusive as all such figures are supposed to be, is surprised at home in the small hours by Morris Bellamy, a fervent fan of his work, and a couple of central-casting goons. Rothstein has seven shades of ambiguity knocked out of him; a tranche of unpublished manuscripts is discovered, stolen, stashed and abandoned, then found by Pete Saubers, a convenient teenage boy, three decades later. Bill Hodges, the detective from Mr Mercedes, now in private practice, gets involved, along with his lovably ramshackle crew (hereabouts there’s a definite whiff of Elmore Leonard, though without the humour or the jazzy prose style). A chase and a fight ensue, and the book’s different timelines interweave in an ingenious, though by no means subtly ingenious, way.
It’s all done with some skill. But those insights into the uncanny aren’t always well served by King’s readiness to resort to violence, which can seem intellectually as well as morally lazy. Bellamy is, without doubt, a horrible piece of work (though his category mistake about who ‘owns’ Rothstein’s writing is shared by Saubers). He is made to suffer for it, which of course just makes him more horrible. But the device of depicting US prison life as one long unrelenting rapefest isn’t just nasty and statistically inaccurate; it’s distracting, as if all the crime in America were committed by men who can’t come clean about their true sexual orientation. And of course there’s something deeply ironic about examining the fateful power of literature through the medium of a book that isn’t so much a book as a shot-by-shot description of an as yet unmade film.