By Diane Awerbuck for the Times
Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)
** (two stars)
Finders Keepers covers old ground, but that’s no crime. Especially if you’re deep in genre territory, which is where King has made his home. Except that this territory – the crime thriller, not the horror – belongs to Raymond Carver and Elmore Leonard and even, God help us, Chuck Palahniuk.
The writing gets decent on page 59, which is 58 more pages than a dubious novel usually gets from me. But I feel attached to anything King writes – precisely the creepy premise of Finders Keepers – and I read, loyally, to the end.
The novel continues the cycle begun in Mr Mercedes, featuring retired detective Bill Hodges, who has set up the company of the title. The case itself follows the misfortunes of Morris Bellamy, college-kid-turned-psychopath, who murders his writer-hero, John Rothstein, because his last book was “a sellout”. Bellamy steals Rothstein’s unpublished notebooks – and boy, does Moleskin get about twenty product placement punts in Finders Keepers – and buries them in an old trunk near his home until the crime is forgotten.
But Morris is jailed for rape and the notebooks lie undiscovered for forty years, when the boy who lives in Bellamy’s childhood home finds them, along with a much-needed 20 000 dollars from Rothstein’s vault. When Bellamy gets paroled, the notebooks (still unread, and still his obsession) are all he wants.
Finders Keepers is not baffling, but I was baffled by it. The dialogue is unlikely, repetition is rife, and King is at such pains to emphasise that the Robinson family is black that I began counting each time it came up. That sounds picky, but that’s because I’m not interested in reading novels whose machinations are apparent. This amateur loopiness is so unlike anything else in his oeuvre that halfway through I was wondering if King was the author, and the whole thing has made me feel a little crazy myself.
But that’s the power of fiction, right? Books get inside your head, especially when you’re young, and they have a way of staying there. One of the truths King describes in Finders Keepers is the reader’s conscious realisation that they love reading, and that it fills them with joy and revelation – and a freedom not possible in the preordained circuit.
Intellectually, Finders Keepers deals with two ideas, both about property. One is the romantic notion that once a writer’s work is published, it no longer belongs to him: the rights of the many to access, versus the rights of the few to privacy. A by-product of the fiction of novels is the fiction of the author’s fame, as the reclusive life of, say, Salinger suggested – and which must be a daily exhaustion to King too, if his 1987 novel, Misery, is anything to go by.
The second idea is the fallout of the economic crisis that began in 2008 and is not over yet, created by the powerful and endured by the rest of us, who find ourselves doing terrible things to keep our tiny, diminishing kingdoms intact. King returns to one of his most personal tropes – the child who is thrown upon his own resources in order to protect his family. If you want horror, there it is – the fairytale desperation and bravery in the coming-of-age story.
King’s preoccupations are every writer’s preoccupations, and there’s no shame in that: money and love, and the despicable things people are prepared to do to in their service.
But there is some shame in committing the only real writing crime – which is to leave nothing to the reader’s imagination. So if you like the pedestrian (Cell, Under the Dome and Duma Key) then tuck right in to Finders Keepers.
But if you want to be scared stiff, read the paper. And if you want to feel the life-changing attachment between the reader and the novel that King insists is his theme here, reread his previous novels: Hearts in Atlantis, especially. And if you won’t do that, find someone else to pick up the slack – the dead and the nearly-dead: Roth, Salinger, Updike. Or even better, the alive and kicking: Mgqolozana, Meyer, Molope; Greenberg, Beukes and Lotz.
- Finders Keepers by Stephen King
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Image courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton