Stephen King admits up front that the newly published Blaze is a trunk novel: his introduction describes how he wrote Blaze in the early '70s (the "period of greatest productivity" for his intermittent pseudonym Richard Bachman, which he therefore revives here) and then rejected it, boxed it up, and set it aside. Recently, he revived the book, rewriting it "fast, never looking ahead or back, wanting to capture the headlong drive" of crime books by the likes of pulp writers Jim Thompson or Richard Stark.

Nothing about this description—a long-rejected novel, rapidly rewritten and rushed to press—sounds particularly promising. But until its abrupt ending, Blaze is one of King/Bachman's better reads, a bare, breathless thriller that minimizes King's usual quirks and peccadilloes, while leaving plenty of room for his talent with characterization and vivid real-world scenarios. His protagonist, Clayton "Blaze" Blaisdell, is a giant of a man with a dented head and a borderline-retardation IQ, courtesy of vicious abuse during childhood. The erstwhile muscle and partner to low-grade con man George Rackley, Blaze is now on his own, contemplating George's pipe-dream job: kidnapping and ransoming the infant son of a rich local couple.

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King draws Blaze skillfully and slyly: He's a sympathetic but eerie figure, a cunning yet simple child-man who can't help being physically dangerous, and who's just barely smart enough to cause serious trouble. From the start, the prospect of a baby in his clumsy, killing paws is a mesmerizing horror, giving the entire book the weight of inevitable tragedy. Per usual, King makes heavy use of flashbacks and inner voices, fleshing out Blaze's past while having an echo of George guiding—and misguiding—his present. (The overt Of Mice And Men reference just compounds the tension, at least for those who remember what happened to John Steinbeck's original George and his big, dumb, dangerous buddy.) The sense of looming doom, the mixed sympathies, the speedy crime-caper writing, and King's typical attention to telling, specific detail all make Blaze irresistible—at least until King wraps things up in a few bare, unsatisfying paragraphs, then tacks on an unrelated short story destined to be expanded into a novel next year. Still, King has been an unreliable talent for more than a decade, and Blaze does come with an up-front warning. Getting most of a terrific yarn out of it is unexpectedly satisfying.