I’m probably preaching to the converted here, but let me let you in on a little secret to some: though books are a big deal to people like you and me, we’re outnumbered by those folks who wind their way through life without ever really reading. To them, the way we’ve committed to literature is… quite simply inexplicable. What they don’t know—and what we, the enlightened, indubitably do—is that great writing can change lives.
Great writing like the work of one John Rothstein, creator of Jimmy Gold, the real American hero at the heart of The Runner trilogy. On the basis of those books, a legion of readers “judged Rothstein to be one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, right up there with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Roth.” Morris Bellamy, a twisted little twentysomething whose mom doesn’t love him enough in the late 70s of Finders Keepers‘ first chapters, is one of said series’ dyed-in-the-wool devotees.
His co-conspirators might have been in it to win it—Rothstein has a hermit’s reputation for keeping his cash close to home—but Morris doesn’t murder him for the money. If anything, our man’s motivation is more sinister still: he executes this retired writer because he believes Rothstein didn’t do the runner justice.
For Rothstein to destroy Jimmy like that! To not even allow him to go out in a blaze of glory, but to live! To compromise, and cut corners, and believe that sleeping with the Amway-selling slut down the street meant he was still a rebel!
Long story short, Jimmy Gold grew up in the last of Rothstein’s novels, which made Morris unfathomably mad. Mad enough to get a gun; mad enough to point it at the aforementioned author; and mad enough to pull the frickin’ trigger. For maybe a minute, Morris regrets the effects of his temper, but what he discovers when the dirty deed is done makes everything okay. Since the release of The Runner Slows Down, Rothstein shied away from the public eye, but evidently, he kept right on writing, because buried beneath the envelopes full of fool’s gold in the safe at the scene is a treasure trove of moleskin notebooks containing more Jimmy Gold stories.
Suddenly concerned that he’ll be caught, Morris puts his partners out to pasture by way of a bullet or two and buries his treasure in a trunk under a tree—to be recovered at a later date, when he’s sure he’s safe—before going out on the town to celebrate. Ironically, he’s arrested for another crime later that day: a rape he has no recollection of.
Approximately one life sentence later, a kid called Pete Saubers randomly unearths the Rothstein haul. As another keen reader, he has a creeping feeling about where the contents must have come from—the author’s unsolved murder has gone down in history since its commission—but the money is a miracle in the making.
Pete’s family has had a hell of a hard time of it since daddy Saubers fell victim to the City Centre Killer, aka Mr Mercedes. Fights about their rock-bottom bank balance are already a daily occurrence, and Pete is old enough to know that something’s gotta give sometime soon. Better, by all accounts, to muddy his own moral compass than let that happen, so he starts sending small bills to his parents in anonymous monthly instalments.
And just like that, the arkie-barkies are over. With the help of its guardian angel, the Saubers family finds its feet financially, such that when the magical money runs out, life is almost good again. Almost being the operative word in that there phrase, given that they still can’t afford to send Pete’s little sister to the private school all her friends attend.
The remaining moleskins, Pete realises, might be the answer to Tina’s prayers. Maybe he could pay her way by selling one or two of the stolen notebooks to a dodgy dealer like Andrew Halliday, the owner of a specialist book store nearby and—in an example of the kind of coinkydinks that are awfully commonplace in this novel—a former frenemy of Morris Bellamy… who just so happens to have been released recently.
And he’ll do anything to get his buried treasure back.
That’s where “Kermit William Hodges—plain old Bill, to his friends” comes in. The retired detective who finally brought the City Centre Killer to justice is now “sixty-six [and] no spring chicken, but he looks pretty good for a heart attack survivor.” As a matter of fact, he’s singing a song in the sunshine when King reintroduces him at the start of the story’s second act—a sure sign that Hodges is a happier man than the protagonist we met in Mr Mercedes. In the intervening years, he’s started a private investigations agency, and though “most of the fish Finders Keepers nets are minnows […] today’s is a bluefin tuna” whose name is the very one on the tip of your tongue. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, folks.
Cumulatively, the quantity of contrivance that knits the plot threads of this text together will be a whopper of a stumbling block for some, but in this instance, I was willing to submit to the wise words of Jimmy Gold, whose mantra, “shit don’t mean shit,” is certain to make sense to Stephen King’s so-called Constant Reader. As with his oft-execrable endings, this “novelistic roundness” is a typical trait of King’s fiction. It’s simply something you’ve got to suck up. If you can’t find it in your heart to do that, steer well clear of Finders Keepers.
Know this, though: you’ll be cheating yourself out of one of the best books he’s written in recent years. Like the early parts of Revival and all of Joyland, Finders Keepers is—aside that regrettable roundness and the “mercifully brief guest appearance” of Tyrone Feelgood Delight (don’t even ask)—emblematic of an author at the absolute peak of his powers.
Truth to tell, I was worried about this book, before. The single most memorable element of Mr Mercedes was the bad guy, Brady. “One of the author’s most memorable monsters,” I called him, “and the fact that he’s human—rather than some otherworldly wickedness or possessed plaything—renders the disgusting things [he] does all the more disturbing.” But “Brady Hartsfield is next door to a vegetable” throughout Finders Keepers, as the woman who made him that way says, and absent that character—and absent, in turn, the dynamic he established with Hodges himself—I was concerned than the new Stephen King mightn’t have much to recommend it.
Readers? I was wrong. Brady might be as good as gone, but his hellish legacy lives on, not least through Pete’s parents. And though this was billed the second book of the Bill Hodges trilogy—not necessarily the most appealing prospect given how severe and defeated a hero he seemed previously—said det-ret isn’t the focal point of Finders Keepers either. It’s really about Morris and Pete: an immediately appealing pair—albeit for completely different reasons—effortlessly rendered in King’s unpretentious prose, and equally representative of the fine line between right and wrong as Hodges and the City Centre Killer were in Mr Mercedes.
So. The themes are here; the characters are cracking; the plot, forced as a fair few of its beats may be, is ultimately massively satisfying; and credit, too, where it’s due: King even sticks the landing! Finders Keepers also fondly recalls a couple of the modern master’s past classics. Early on, it’s all a little bit Misery, and there are certain shades of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption in Morris’ share of the tale. In a book about the ownership of stories, these sequences feel far from cheap. In a sense, they serve as a redolent reminder of King’s unparalleled power.
Tremendously tense and invariably entertaining, Finders Keepers is in the final summation the craft of a creator who, like John Rothstein—King’s own creation, of course—can and continues to change lives with his surprising and insightful writing.
Finders Keepers is available now from Scribner.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.