Annie Wilkes, meet Morris Bellamy. The two of you are made for each other. And, of course, made by the same person: Stephen King.
Wilkes came to life in 1987 as the obsessive-fan and nurse of writer Paul Sheldon in King’s novel “Misery.” Annie, after rescuing Paul from a car wreck, realizes who he is and takes him captive while nursing him back to health.
Along the way, Annie forces Paul to bang out a manuscript in his convalescence – a manuscript that will revive Paul’s popular but creatively stifling romantic heroine, Misery Chastain. Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her black-humored portrayal of Annie in the 1990 movie adaptation.
Which brings us to Morris Bellamy. King, who became a brand-name author 40 years ago, is again delving into the uneasy alliances between writers and their most-devoted fans. In a Stephen King kind of way, of course.
In contemporary terms, this could be called “The Life of George R.R. Martin.” After all, the “Game of Thrones” author embodies the plight of best-selling success and impatient readers, a saga of its own detailed by Laura Miller in a New Yorker profile of Martin in 2011. HBO’s adaptation of Martin’s fantasy series has only exacerbated matters; Martin has two books left in his projected seven-book series but the TV show has already overtaken his progress, prompting online rage and anger from fans.
Which brings us back to Morris Bellamy. Finders Keepers, King’s second entry in a projected trilogy of mystery novels, introduces Morris as a 23-year-old ne’er-do-well. Morris, with a pair of dunderhead accomplices, breaks into the New Hampshire home of John Rothstein, a 79-year-old former best-selling novelist who has become a Salingeresque recluse.
Rothstein is believed to have kept bundles of cash at his rural home, the carrot Morris uses to enlist his partners in crime. Morris, though, wants something else: unpublished novels continuing the story of his antihero. The third and final book Rothstein published in the series years earlier enraged Morris, prompting his demented errand to New Hampshire.
The aging author, awakened by the home invasion, cowers before his assailants – until a short, threatening conversation with Morris makes clear his real motivation. This exchange allows King the chance to indulge a number of winking asides on fame, expectations, and literary critiques.
Morris tells the reclusive author he’s a sellout and hectors him for “spending the last twenty years hiding away from the world like a rat in a hole.” Rothstein erupts. “If you think that,” he tells Morris, “you never understood a word I wrote.”
Questioning his right to a quiet retirement “sparked Rothstein’s anger into full-blown rage,” King tells us. “You know what, kid? It’s guys like you who give reading a bad name.”
With this setup, King uses the aftermath of the robbery as the foundation for “Finders Keepers,” bouncing back and forth in time from 1978 to interludes spanning 2009 to the present.
There is one small matter this review has yet to address: How does a literary home invasion have anything to do with “Mr. Mercedes,” the Edgar Award-winning best mystery novel of 2014 that started the trilogy continued by “Finders Keepers”? As King himself would say, fear not, Constant Reader.
Morris Bellamy dispatches his accomplices, buries his stolen financial and literary treasure from John Rothstein’s New Hampshire safe – and promptly winds up in prison for a separate crime. All of which leaves ample room for King to invent entertaining and intriguing circumstances and coincidences requiring the skills of the odd but endearing detective trio from the previous novel.
King’s motley crew consists of an aging retired policeman, a mentally scarred woman, and an energetic freshman Ivy Leaguer. Somehow, it works.
It took decades, but King leapt into literary respectability 15 or so years ago after being denigrated as a mere purveyor of pulp. Let others debate literary credentials. All I, and many millions of other readers know, is King pulls the levers of storytelling with what looks to be invisible ease.
Here, he depicts the inner workings of a marriage unraveling under the strains of recession. For starters, there goes their daughter’s “SpongeBob” habit, lost with the disconnected cable, and, oh by the way, an unforeseen medical emergency has left dad with a pain-pill addiction. For those who still smile-wince at classic King gore, savor his description of a deviant using a Mercedes to massacre one of many victims: “His hips snapped. They sounded like dry turkey bones.”
In April, the previous book, “Mr. Mercedes,” won the Edgar Award for best mystery novel of 2014. This week, in The New York Times, King said writing a mystery is the most difficult thing for him of any genre.
There are no signs of strain in the finished product. A classic bogeyman cliffhanger ends “Finders Keepers,” all but guaranteeing a satisfying finale. But let us be patient and avoid being greedy. We don’t want to give reading a bad name, do we?