In the final volume of the Bill Hodges trilogy, the timeline briefly veers back to the opening scene of Mr. Mercedes. This time, a few minutes after the scene which opens the series. (Then it returns to a contemporary setting, a few years after Finders Keepers.)
This kind of attention-to-detail, careful backseat-driving on the author’s part, gives readers the sense of finally being able to assemble a kaleidoscope of images into a broader understanding of the events they have witnessed in the earlier volumes.
As a standalone, Mr. Mercedes does not put all of King’s narrative strengths on display, but they shine just as brightly in the context of the trilogy as a whole.
This is partly a matter of familiarity. Many secondary characters, whose roles have increased in importance in the second and third volumes, now make vitally important contributions to the story. Their presence in Mr. Mercedes might have appeared situational, but now readers are so heavily invested that they will wonder whether some of them could appear in future novels as lead characters.
It’s also partly a matter of the first volume serving as an introduction in many respects. The character of Mr. Mercedes is a driving force behind Bill Hodges, and in the series’ first volume readers have a bird’s eye view of his psyche. (Even the villains in Stephen King’s stories have whole and complete stories, sometimes especially the villains.)
“Brady Hartsfield, aka Mr. Mercedes, wanted to converse with the cop who had failed to catch him, and, although retired, Hodges was very willing to talk. Because once you got dirtbags like Mr. Mercedes talking (there weren’t very many like him, and thank God for that), they were only a step or two from being caught. This was especially true of the arrogant ones, and Hartsfield had been arrogance personified.”
Readers might approach End of Watch as a standalone, in terms of the resolution of the mystery at the heart of this volume, because there is background (like this paragraph) offered, but a single paragraph cannot capture the depth of characterization that the series’ first volume offers readers, in its entirety. But readers will not have the same emotional investment in Hodges’ character (or the lives of the secondary characters)
It’s one thing to have Hodges’ guilt presented as an observation: “It was kind of like quitting smoking: hard at first, easier as time went by. Now whole weeks sometimes pass without thoughts of Brady and Brady’s terrible crimes.”
But it’s quite another to have followed his attempts to exorcize the guilt and sorrow throughout the years which have passed since the initial crime.
“The citations never mattered to hin. The reward was the flash of light that came with the connections. He found himself unable to give it up. Hence Finders Keepers instead of retirement.”
Bill has opted to continue in his pursuit of justice, operating Finders Keepers as one means of righting wrongs (his own and others’), and he has able staff members who are similarly preoccupied (characters introduced in earlier volumes, unnamed to avoid spoilers).
This small group has traversed from community to family, over the course of some years, united not only in their pursuit of justice but also in their affection for one another. Solving crimes is a dangerous business, the burden of past losses and failures is heavy. Bill is not the only one experiencing some health problems as he works to cope with the strain.
“There’s more to it! More more more! But they’re just going to sweep it under the rug and they didn’t even say the real reason which is so Pete can have a nice retirement party without this hanging over his head the way you had to retire with the Mercedes Killer hanging over yours and so the papers don’t make a big deal out of it and you know there’s more to it I know you do and I know you have to get your test results I want you to get them beause I’m so worried, but those poor women…I just don’t think…they don’t deserve to…to just be shoveled under!”
The idea of one’s chosen family reverberates throughout King’s writing, from “The Body” to The Stand, from Carrie (not all families are happy) to the volumes in this trilogy. Alliances are key.
But one of the factors which makes those alliances so powerful is the presence of a powerful contrary force, an indiviual or group who seeks to destroy that unity.
And not all villains appear to be as dangerous as they are. “Every time I’ve been to see him, he just sits there. Bland as a bowl of oatmeal.”
There’s that breakfast cereal again, noted in Finders Keepers too, as evidence of the subtle details which draw volumes in this series together.
Another instance of this is evident with Bill’s references to popular culture, which are frequently overlooked by younger or less engaged characters, but which are not only appreciated but boosted by his friends, whose similar interests supplement his own.
“He hangs up and heads back to the hospital, breaking into a clumsy trot. He thinks, This goddam place is like the Mafia. Every time I think I’m out, it pulls me back in.”
Just when I think I’ve read enough of Stephen King, he pulls me back in. The Bill Hodges trilogy is solid storytelling and showcases his talent so brightly that I am keen to pull other works of his off the shelf this summer.