Shortly after the publication of Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King announced that the book was the first in a trilogy that would be connected by the City Center Massacre (in which a psycho named Brady Hartsfield stole a Mercedes and plowed into a crowd of people who were waiting in line at a job fair in a struggling Mid-western city).
Hartsfield got away with that crime but was—during the commission of an even more audacious and nefarious scheme—eventually brought to justice by a rag-tag group led by retired police detective Bill Hodges. Hartsfield was effectively taken off the playing board at the conclusion of Mr. Mercedes but, at the end of the second book, Finders Keepers, King hinted strongly that this villain would be back, front and center, for the finale. He also suggested that the third book would be closer to a traditional King novel, by which I mean it might have supernatural elements.
The phrase “End of Watch” will be familiar to anyone with more than a passing knowledge of police dramas. In one context, it refers to the day when a cop retires. On another, more ominous level, it refers to a cop killed in the line of duty. Bill Hodges has already experienced the first usage—the question the title of the third book poses is whether he will experience the other.
For years after Hartsfield was captured, Hodges was obsessed with the young man who had attempted to goad him into committing suicide. You see, Hartsfield is obsessed with suicide. He read about the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana when he was a boy, and got his only A grade on a paper in high school for an essay about suicide in the U.S. He is a connoisseur of suicide. An architect of suicide. He is the suicide prince, the book’s original title.
But he’s also supposedly in a persistent vegetative state, thanks to a conk on the head delivered by Hodges’ best friend—and now partner at the Finders Keepers agency—Holly Gibney, a middle-aged woman who has many vulnerabilities, insecurities and quirks, but also many valuable skills. Over time, and against all odds, Hartsfield has become able to walk short distances and respond to simple questions, but he still can’t dress himself or talk coherently. Though Hodges is convinced that Hartsfield is faking his condition, his friends eventually convince him to stop visiting the killer in the hospital—in room 217.
Now it’s Hodges’ former partner Pete Huntley who has Hartsfield on his mind. Seven years after the City Center Massacre, one of the most seriously injured victims and her mother are found dead. It looks like a murder-suicide, but Pete (who has his own “End of Watch” date scheduled) has doubts. Against his ambitious partner’s wishes, he calls Hodges and Holly in to consult. Two other survivors of the massacre committed suicide and Pete is feeling guilty over the way they treated Olivia Trelawney, the former owner of the Mercedes Hartsfield used—a woman who also committed suicide, and who happens to be Holly’s cousin.
Pete’s intuition is correct. Hodges discovers that the recent victims had been making plans that render suicide unlikely, and someone has been surveilling their house. The mysterious letter Z appears both at the crime scene and at the surveillance site.
Hodges was right, too—Brady has been pretending. He’s far more alert than he lets on, and his miraculous recovery has been aided by an unapproved experimental drug administered by the unethical chief of neurology. It has taken Brady years to get to the point where he’s ready to put his nefarious plan into action, but he’s aided by some mild telekinetic power and the ability to project his personality into certain susceptible individuals in a manner reminiscent of how Roland Deschain enters the mind of Jack Mort in The Drawing of the Three. The way Brady’s mind reboots during his recovery also reminded me of the link between brain recovery and restoring a computer seen in Cell.
With the unwilling/unwitting assistance of a former co-worker, Hartsfield concocts a way to use an obsolete computer gaming console to hypnotize its users, allowing him to control their actions remotely. His death toll from the City Center Massacre was low—and it was exactly zero at the Mingo Auditorium—but he means to rectify that, and destroy Hodges in the process.
Every good suspense novel needs a ticking clock and the one King uses in End of Watch is compelling: Hodges has been having stomach complaints lately and Holly finally convinces him to see a doctor. The news isn’t good—Hodges is suffering from what he comes to think of as the real suicide prince: cancer, a disease that kills itself by killing its host. He can only delay treatment for a couple of days. While he’s understandably upset by his prognosis, Hodges is more worried about what will happen to Holly if the worst transpires. Though fragile, she has been getting stronger through her association with him, and he’s concerned about her future.
The plot requires Hodges—and readers—to shift gears from the straight crime logic of the previous two books into the realm of the “impossible.” Holly encourages this belief by referring to Isabel “Izzy” Jaynes, Pete’s partner, who often refuses to pursue inconvenient investigative pathways despite compelling evidence, to her detriment.
End of Watch is a particularly nasty story because Hartsfield’s intended victims tend to be young, including Barbara Robinson, who played a major part in Finders Keepers and is the younger sister of Hodges’ sometimes assistant, Jerome. Hartsfield is an unrepentant monster cut from the same cloth as Hannibal Lecter (the book is dedicated to Thomas Harris). He has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and has a single-minded desire to create mayhem and murder, with no concerns for the repercussions. He’s hell-bent on revenge and absolutely willing to die during the execution of his schemes, which makes him even deadlier. If Hodges and Holly are to stop him once and for all, they must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, too.
The novel works well both as the conclusion to a trilogy or as a standalone. King fills in sufficient backstory surrounding the City Center incident and Brady’s terrorist attack at the ’Round Here concert to orient new readers, and the events of Finders Keepers are not important to this book. After a scene at a remote cabin that may bring an incident from Breaking Bad to mind, there is an air of finality, which makes it seem like the series might remain a trilogy, although King does leave a door open for further investigations by the Finders Keepers agency.
But keep your eye on those pink fishies in the Fishin’ Hole. They’re fast, and they’re ever so mesmerizing.
 This isn’t the only allusion to The Shining in a book that is generally light on crossovers. A Tucker Sno-Cat appears late in the proceedings, reminiscent of the Thiokol snowcat Dick Halloran drove in the Kubrick adaptation.