Stephen King has made a long career out of stories about authors and their problems—the common ones, like writer’s block and the struggle for critical success, and the less-common ones, like evil twins and ghostly possession. But not since 1987’s Misery has he dealt as closely with the psychotic fan as he does in his new novel, Finders Keepers. Misery is one of King’s best novels: It’s tense and breathless almost from the opening chapters, and its scenario about a novelist taken captive by a crazed superfan who demands he write to her specifications is clearly written from the heart. Finders Keepers is more removed and less intense, the work of a considerably older and more thoughtful man. Where Misery grapples with the question of ownership before and at the moment of creation, Finders Keepers is more interested in the sake of posthumous ownership. Which is a little morbid, considering King’s age and the prominence of a near-fatal 1999 accident in his life and work. But then, the writer whose work is being contested in the book doesn’t die of old age or an accident: He’s murdered in the first chapter, by the man who tries to take control of his final novels.
Finders Keepers is a direct sequel to King’s 2014 novel Mr. Mercedes, though it takes a while for the connections to appear. It starts with 79-year-old former literary star John Rothstein, murdered in his home by vengeful reader Morris Bellamy and a pair of lowlifes who think they’re only there to rob the place. Morris deeply resents what Rothstein did with his signature character, Jimmy Gold, the Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom-like protagonist of a trilogy of acclaimed novels about a young, hungry man who eventually settles down and sells out. As a troubled young man, Morris identified deeply with Jimmy Gold, and thinks Rothstein committed a cardinal sin by turning his youthful rebellion into corporate resignation. So he robs and kills Rothstein, and in the process comes into possession of two more unpublished Jimmy Gold novels, written in longhand in a vast quantity of notebooks. Before reading them, he hides them—and the thousands of dollars he finds with them—then promptly gets himself imprisoned for more than three decades for an unrelated crime. Eventually, as he nears release, a 13-year-old boy named Pete Saubers finds the notebooks and money, setting up an eventual confrontation between the two of them.
Finders Keepers has plenty of connections with Mr. Mercedes—among other things, Pete’s father is one of the surviving victims of the Mercedes Killer from the first book, and Pete uses Rothstein’s money to secretly keep his family afloat during his father’s long, painful recovery. And eventually, Mr. Mercedes protagonist Bill Hodges, a retired cop and now a private investigator, gets involved in the long-cold Rothstein case. But this isn’t really Bill’s book; it spends far more time with Morris and Pete, originally two young men with a lot in common, as Rothstein sparks a love of literature in both of them, and draws them both into trouble. The novel also has more than a little in common with King’s recent Doctor Sleep, his disappointing sequel to The Shining, which spends the whole book setting up a big battle that never looks like the antagonists might come close to winning. At 59, freshly released from prison into an unfamiliar world, and lacking any particular talent or knowledge, Morris seems like a relatively minimal threat. The real question that hangs tantalizingly over the story is who will wind up with the unpublished Rothstein notebooks, which complete the Jimmy Gold cycle so perfectly that it’s an open question why Rothstein hid them away in the first place.
King’s refusal to even significantly address that question is one of Finders Keepers’ biggest disappointments, not because it’s crucial to the story he tells, but because it’s crucial to making it something more than a string of elaborate character-building exercises leading to a throwdown. Morris and Pete are both well drawn, familiar King types—the stymied, crazy obsessive and the innocent naïf just starting to wake up to the realities of the world—but their story lacks the deeper, more resonant themes of a book like Misery, which is openly about more than whether one hapless author will survive one possessive fan. Misery is a painfully personal book about creativity and survival, touching on King’s feelings about his writing drawing him out of a bad place in his life. Finders Keepers misses a chance at a similarly larger scope by dodging issues of Rothstein’s intentions and whether the world has any obligation to honor them. His unpublished works are, apparently, wonderful, and crucial to a series that without them, communicates exactly the opposite of what he intended to say about life. Amid all the detail about Morris’ sketchy past and awful mother, and about Bill Hodges’ new diet and new lease on life, and about Pete’s discovery of literature and subsequent schoolwork, King skimps both on Rothstein’s perspective, and on any significant questions the characters would naturally have about it. Where his notebooks should represent a larger story about who owns art, they’re mostly just a generic MacGuffin.
That aside, there’s a little unnecessary bulk to Finders Keepers: In particular, the return of Bill’s neighbor Jerome, a black kid who still occasionally (though at least less often) talks in exclamation-point-filled slave patois. (“Dis here black boy goan tote dat barge an’ lift dat bale, Massa Hodges!”) But while the book packs in a few more characters than necessary, to the point where it starts to feel a bit like an Elmore Leonard novel, and comes across as more thoughtful and sprawling than lean and propulsive, it’s still well drawn and absorbing. While King doesn’t answer his own ownership questions, and only at the end summons up some of his old breathless tension over who will make it out alive, he finds a different source of discomfort throughout the book. The question he does answer: What happens to the Rothstein notebooks, and who gets to read them. It isn’t a big question, but it’s a personal issue for every reader who’s had a close, personal relationship with an author’s work, and felt a pang when the supply runs out. In that one way, avaricious murderer Morris Bellamy may be more relatable than his wide-eyed, innocent teenage prey.