King of Crime: Part III — Featured Review of LATER and what comes…later
Today is publication day for Hard Case Crime’s third Stephen King novel, Later. Although King is generally thought of as a horror writer, he has written numerous crime short stories, novellas and novels, giving them a unique twist. In Part I of this three-part series, I looked at King’s earliest involvement with crime fiction. In Part II, I explored his more recent writings in the genre, including his previous two books with Hard Case Crime and the Mercedes series. Today, I review Later and look ahead to King’s next crime novel, Billy Summers.
Stephen King’s Hard Case Crime books could all be considered crime novels but, as I mentioned last time, each one has ventured a little farther into supernatural territory. As narrator James “Jamie” Conklin reminds readers on several occasions, Later is a horror story.
Jamie is twenty-two (in the year 2022) when he sets down his account of things that happened to him beginning at the age of three, when he first realized he could see dead people. At that early age, he barely had the vocabulary to explain what he was experiencing, but by the time he’s six he can prove his talent to his mother, Tia. She’s known for a long time there was something unusual about him (once describing him as “fey” to a friend) but the details he provides about the late Mrs. Burkett are incontrovertible.
Tia Conklin is a literary agent who took over her older brother’s agency when he suffered early onset dementia. She understands the implications of Jamie’s revelation. The dead are compelled to answer truthfully whenever Jamie asks them questions, so widespread knowledge of his ability could leave him vulnerable to unscrupulous people. People die with secrets, and there will always be others who want to know those secrets.
It’s ironic, then, that Tia is the first person to exploit his talent for her personal benefit. Jamie’s Uncle Harry had invested heavily in a Ponzi scheme that collapsed with the 2008 economic crisis, leaving Jamie’s mom in a difficult financial position that is compounded by the death of her most lucrative client, Regis Thomas. She concocts a scheme of her own to keep the creditors at bay and, in doing so, sets into motion a series of events that puts Jamie in mortal danger — from both humans and supernatural entities.
The novel’s third major character is Elizabeth Dutton, Detective 2nd Grade with the NYPD. Liz and Tia met at a book launch party for Thomas, author of a series of raunchy historical romances set in the Roanoke colony (Gregory Manchess’s cover for The Secret of Roanoke appears in the Hard Case Crime limited edition of Later, shown above). Friendship turns into a more intimate relationship and Liz becomes a willing — albeit skeptical — participant in Tia’s scheme. Jamie likes Liz most of the time, but he’s jealous of how much of his mother’s attention she “steals” from him. Unfortunately, Liz — who ultimately reveals her true nature as a racist and a birther — is one of those unscrupulous people about whom Tia warned him.
A subplot features a serial bomber who calls himself Thumper. For over a decade, his bombs have caused mayhem and grave injuries in and around the five boroughs of New York, but it isn’t until 2009 (when Jamie is 9 years old) that his bombs kill someone. This causes him to accelerate his reign of terror, with increasingly sophisticated and deadly devices. While being forced to assist Liz in determining the location of Thumper’s coup de grâce, Jamie discovers new things about the world of the dead: a revenant who resists answering his questions, and something far worse and more disturbing than a ghost.
The supernatural aspects of Later are reminiscent of several King works. There are terrible entities outside our universe that seek access to our world. Previous examples of this include Pennywise from It, the possessed ghost of Sara Tidwell from Bag of Bones and the title character from The Outsider, as well as the disturbing revelations at the end of Revival. The concept of a ghost being possessed by another entity is unique to King, to the best of my knowledge.
“I sometimes think my life was like a Dickens novel, only with swearing,” Jamie says from his 22-year-old perspective. The novel’s title comes from the fact that Jamie is too young to understand the import of many of the things happening to him while they are happening. He’s also not privy to all the details surrounding a particular incident. “I found out later” is a common mantra for which he apologizes in the prologue. As an older (although still quite young) man, Jamie can fill in details unavailable to his younger self.
Later builds to a climax where fifteen-year-old Jamie is forced to summon an unlikely “ally” to help him survive a perilous situation, but the story doesn’t end there. Jamie is forced to confront another secret that changes everything he thought he knew about himself.
The paperback edition includes a 22-page Joyland excerpt, so don’t be misled by the number of pages remaining!
Later is clearly part of the Stephen King Universe. There are a couple of 19s, one direct and the other mathematical. Jamie Conklin is familiar with Shawshank Prison from the movie. The name of a drug lord will have some people thinking of ‘Salem’s Lot and/or a star of the recent remake of The Stand.
In addition to having Jamie quote him from On Writing, King adds a few nods to some of his writer friends: there’s a lawyer named Grisham, and Regis Thomas’s habit of writing the last sentence of his novels first is drawn from an anecdote King likes to tell about John Irving. The mystery of the colony that disappeared from Roanoke has popped up from time to time in other King books.
Beyond these elements, though, there are a few others I won’t spoil so you’ll have the delight of discovering them for yourselves, including a certain Nepalese/Tibetan ritual. There’ll be no missing them thanks to the academic ruminations of one Professor Burkett.
King talks about the ideas that came together to create the story behind Later in this AP interview from last week. He will appear on The Drew Barrymore Show tomorrow (March 3) to discuss the book. Maybe they’ll even reminisce about Firestarter!
King isn’t finished with crime fiction! His next book, Billy Summers, due out from Scribner on August 3, 2021, is about a decorated Iraq war vet turned killer-for-hire with a very specific type of victim. He first mentioned the concept of this book during his conversation with Grisham last April, saying he’d originally set the novel in 2020 but decided to move it back to 2019 because one scene involved sending a couple of characters on a cruise to get them out of action for a while.
Here is the publisher’s description of the novel:
Billy Summers is a man in a room with a gun. He’s a killer for hire and the best in the business. But he’ll do the job only if the target is a truly bad guy. And now Billy wants out. But first there is one last hit. Billy is among the best snipers in the world, a decorated Iraq war vet, a Houdini when it comes to vanishing after the job is done. So what could possibly go wrong?
How about everything.
This spectacular can’t-put-it-down novel is part war story, part love letter to small town America and the people who live there, and it features one of the most compelling and surprising duos in King fiction, who set out to avenge the crimes of an extraordinarily evil man. It’s about love, luck, fate, and a complex hero with one last shot at redemption.
You won’t put this story down, and you won’t forget Billy.
In an interview with Brian Truitt of USA Today this week, King said, “Billy is a bad guy that I want readers to love. I loved him after a while. And he’s a guy who’s just on a journey to find a better kind of life than the one he’s living. It’s kind of a road novel in a way and I hope that people will get immersed in it. What I really want is for people to say, “I burned dinner because I was reading this book.””