Novel November

End of Watch

by Stephen King

Reading Review by Michael Channing

End of Watch by Stephen King

In 2014 Stephen King published a detective novel, something he'd never done before. It won awards and was really quite good. He also announced it was the first in a trilogy. So the summer of '15 rolled around and brought with it a new Stephen King book with a similar cover to that of the first book we loved so much. Only the second in the trilogy didn't have much to do with the first except that its protagonist was affected somewhat by the murderous events of the first. The main players from the first novel appeared only as secondary characters, and the condition of the bad guy, the thing all us Constant Readers were begging to know, barely entered into the conversation at all. It was a fine book, but not what we expected. That's okay, we can wait another year. King won't let us down.

At last End of Watch was released, and we finally got to see what was happening with the mass murderer Brady Hartsfield.

As the jacket flap says, Brady does not go gently into that good night, nor does he suffer any permanent brain damage. He's alive but trapped in the hospital room. If he shows himself to be conscious and aware, he'll have to stand trial. Plus his weakened body won't allow him to stand. But the blow that cracked his skull and put him (temporarily) out of commission at the end of the first novel switched on a couple of mental powers in his brain. He now has the ability to move things with his mind, although only small things, and he can only manipulate them to a small degree. He can knock over picture frames and turn faucets on and off (still better than Jubilee's powers—ZING!). But his strongest ability is mental dominance. He can enter someone's mind and take control of their body. He can also speak to them, pretending to be their own thoughts, and manipulate them in a more subtle way. His favorite hobby is to suggest his victims commit suicide. Depending on their state of mind, they often do.

Brady isn't happy with just punishing the few unlucky souls who happen to enter his hospital room. He has a plan to continue his killing spree by distributing hundreds of video game consoles through which he can tap into the minds of the users and tip their latent depression and suicidal thoughts and persuade them to end their lives. What makes him so sure his victims will already have suicidal tendencies? He's specifically targeting teenagers. The set up sounds a bit wonky, using video games to corrupt kids and push them to the brink of despondency. But King handles it well, and by the time Brady's plan begins to tick into place, you are fully invested and ready to believe.

Like the first book, the protagonist is retired detective Bill Hodges, now a private investigator. You can't help but like Bill. His character is fully developed, and his thoughts are real, weighty, and relatable. This time, along with having to unravel then stop Brady's machinations, Bill is dealing with a less-than-optimistic cancer diagnosis. Even if he can figure out what Brady is up to, can he live long enough to confront the killer? It's a gripping ride, but I have to say—and this is simply because this is the last of a series—you can't help but feel the outcome is inevitable and automatically weighted in the hero's favor.

The first book was different. Before we knew the story would continue, we white-knuckled our way through with the growing tension that the good guys might not come out on top. Brady is a fascinating character in the first book, an evil bastard but still relatable. You actually understand his motives, as insane as they may be, because you see the world through his eyes. You see the toils and trials he endures and actually understand what turned him into what he is. As literature has proven again and again through the centuries, the villain is always more interesting than the hero. But this time, Brady feels less like a real person and more like a plot delivery device. It is an interesting and complex plot, but the intimate connection is gone, and that makes this book inferior to the first. I still recommend it, but if you fell as hard for Mr. Mercedes as I did, you won't be as enamored with its concluding volume.

I will say that Brady's master plan to drive sad and lonely people to suicide did hook me pretty deep. I've been thinking about suicide a lot lately. Not like that, but just about suicide in general. Ever since Robin Williams killed himself a couple of years ago, I've been trying to figure out what it is that sends someone to that extreme. I can't help but turn the subject over in my mind. Robin was at the top of the comedy ladder. He was the absolute best stand-up there was. All his peers said so. That's not tribute in hindsight, everyone said so during his life: there was no one who could top him or even come close. He got what every comedian struggles for: a hit TV show, beloved and award-winning movie roles (yes, some of them stank like a skunk orgy, but many more were fantastic), best-selling comedy albums and specials. He was rich. He made his living playing and cursing on stage. He had the love of his peers and a world-wide audience. What reason did he have to kill himself? Was there something missing he felt he could never have or achieve? Did he push himself so hard that he never noticed how much he'd done? Was there an inescapable sadness that forever darkened his heart?

I know depression. I guess we all do. Sometimes it comes to live in my heart for days or weeks, shutting all the windows and doors, scattering its dirty socks about the floor, leaving cereal bowls full of milk and shame sitting out on every surface, generally crowding out all the joy. It comes, it goes. I brood and feel sorry for myself. Occasionally, as I assume everyone else does, I think to myself, “I'd rather not endure the full length of your stay, Mr. Depression. Is there a quick and easy way to get you out of my life?” The answer is yes, and it comes in the form of good books, powerful music, fun games, playing with my daughter on the swing and making her laugh. What would happen if those things didn't work? What would happen if a voice that sounded kind of like my own whispered, “There's another way out. And this time it will last forever.” In End of Watch, Brady Hartsfield takes on the role of that pleasing, deceitful voice. He finds folks at their weakest and tells them what they want to hear, that the end is easy and painless, and it will solve their problems forever. Otherwise, he says, the pain will go on forever, and no one will care. He takes advantage of them at their lowest and turns their fears against them. King may have crafted the worst kind of villain you can think of, but by taking away all his humanity, all that's left is an empty voice.

I wrote the above review a while back, before I knew more about Robin Williams' health diagnosis. I thought he was driven to suicide by depression, a real and painful condition, but still somewhat abstract. It turns out Robin had a very physical abnormality that was scraping away the linings of his nerves and deteriorating his brain. He had trouble sleeping, couldn't remember lines for a movie role, and was often seized by crippling panic attacks. He had a tremor. His wife and doctor think he may very well have been having hallucinations and covering them up. His wife wrote an account of the final year of his life, and it sounds absolutely terrifying. I don't want to downplay the effects of depression. I've never suffered from truly debilitating depression, but I've been visited by its distant cousin, and I know how it takes over your thoughts. But Robin's neurological nightmare seems so much worse than clinical depression. I know now he killed himself not to escape a shapeless black cloud but a pattern of symptoms that were worsening every day. There's no relief in that realization, of course. He was still the random victim of a cold and careless universe. It could have been anyone. It just happened to be the funniest man alive.

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