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Review: Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates share scary theme of obsession in their new thrillers

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Published Jun. 3, 2015

When authors meet their readers at book signings and other events, they usually greet those fans with warm smiles.

If the new novels by Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates are any kind of glimpse into authors' minds, though, readers should be glad the writers they love don't run away in terror.

Not that we ought to take King's Finders Keepers and Oates' Jack of Spades as psychological case studies. Both of these books are entertaining, page-turning thrillers, perfect summer reads by a couple of crack writers.

But both revolve around the relationships between writers and their more, um, devoted fans, and how those relationships can turn strange. King has addressed this before, notably in Misery; in Finders Keepers, the writer in question is a recluse modeled on J.D. Salinger. In Oates' Jack of Spades, a successful mystery writer named Andrew Rush is himself obsessed by the even greater success of another writer: Stephen King.

A Salinger-esque author

Finders Keepers is a sequel to King's 2014 Mr. Mercedes, and like it this novel is a straight-ahead thriller, with no supernatural or paranormal elements. (Well, almost.) He brings back the heroes of that book, retired police detective Bill Hodges and his unlikely sidekicks, brilliant teenager Jerome Robinson (now a Harvard student) and an emotionally damaged young woman named Holly Gibney.

But the three of them don't show up until almost midway through the novel. The first half takes place partly in 2009, partly in 1978, and sets up the confrontation to come between two very different readers of the acclaimed Jimmy Gold trilogy by John Rothstein.

Rothstein is the Salinger-esque author, and the first book of his trilogy, The Runner, sounds a lot like Catcher in the Rye. Rothstein became rich and famous, King tells us, then left it all behind to retire to a farm in New Hampshire. Rumor has it he has been writing for the 18 years since, but no one knows for sure.

Until, that is, the night in 1978 when Morris Bellamy and two accomplices break into Rothstein's house. Rumor also says there's a lot of cash stashed there, but that's not what Bellamy cares about.

The Runner was transformative for him: "For readers, one of life's most electrifying discoveries is that they are readers — not just capable of doing it (which Morris already knew) but in love with it. Hopelessly. Head over heels. The first book that does this is never forgotten, and each page seems to bring a fresh revelation ..."

But Bellamy hates the third book in the trilogy, The Runner Slows Down, in which Jimmy Gold gets married, moves to the suburbs and gets a job in advertising.

He's so enraged by this sellout, even years after first reading it, that he confronts Rothstein during the robbery:

" 'You created one of the greatest characters in American literature, then s--- on him,' Morrie said. 'A man who could do that doesn't deserve to live.'

"The anger roared back like a sweet surprise. 'If you think that,' John Rothstein said, 'you never understood a word I wrote.' "

Rothstein ends up dead (not a spoiler, folks — it happens in the first chapter and is mentioned in the Amazon description), and Bellamy makes off with a true treasure: not just $20,000 and change, but more than 100 of Rothstein's notebooks, which the thief hopes are further novels.

Bellamy stashes all of it away in a trunk he buries near his mother's home. But before he can read word one of what's in the notebooks, he ends up in prison for 30 years for a crime that has nothing to do with Rothstein's death. There, ironically, he makes a living of sorts as a writer, or at least ghostwriter, for other prisoners.

A few years before Bellamy is paroled, another reader stumbles on that buried trunk. Pete Saubers is in middle school, a bright kid whose family has been fractured by a terrible crime — his father was one of the victims of the title character in Mr. Mercedes. Tom Saubers survived but is still disabled, and the family — Dad, Mom, Pete and little sister Tina — have had to move to a smaller house and cut a lot of corners.

When Pete sees the cash in the trunk, he devises a way to use it to help his family without revealing that it's coming from him. But what really changes his life are the notebooks.

For years they are his secret delight, and they lead him to hope for his own career as a writer. But once Bellamy is out of jail, the only thing he wants is to get his hands on the notebooks — which puts Pete right in his crosshairs.

Will Pete survive? Will Rothstein's writings ever make it to print? Will King scare the bejeebers out of us once again? I can answer the last one: Yes.

'The gentleman's Stephen King'

Joyce Carol Oates is a hugely accomplished literary novelist, but she has always delighted in crossing and bending genre lines. She has won a National Book Award and many other literary honors, but she also has received a couple of Bram Stokers for horror and a World Fantasy Award, and she has written everything from bodice-ripping romances to historical novels that feature vampires.

So Jack of Spades, a thriller with hints of horror, is no surprise (although the book contains plenty of them). It's a briskly paced, brief book, more novella than novel, which serves its headlong story well — I read almost all of it in one sitting.

Its narrator, Andrew Rush, is the "author of bestselling mystery-suspense novels with a touch of the macabre. (Not an excessive touch, not nasty-mean, or disturbing. Never obscene, nor even sexist. Women are treated graciously in my mysteries, apart from a few obligatory noir performances. Corpses are likely to be white adult males.)"

He has, he tells us modestly, book sales in the "double-digit millions" and has been reviewed in the New York Times (but, he adds with a touch of pique, only in the crime fiction roundup). He has even been called, he notes, "the gentleman's Stephen King." He goes on to outline the parallels between himself and King, although he is "sure they are only coincidental."

Coincidence, too, we're sure, that Rush has another, secret writer's life. He has written four novels, "cruder, more visceral, more frankly horrific," under the pen name Jack of Spades. No one knows he wrote them — he uses a different publisher and agent and communicates with them only electronically. As Andrew Rush, he is a meticulous planner who composes on a computer in a gorgeously designed studio in his New Jersey estate. As Jack of Spades, he writes longhand late at night in a drunken fever dream and scarcely remembers the books once they're in print.

He keeps the two careers separate successfully until a couple of things happen. His grown daughter picks up a copy of a Jack of Spades book and finds it not only "gross" but disturbingly similar in plot to an event in her own life.

Also, Rush opens the mail one day to find a summons, threatening him with arrest if he doesn't show up in court. He is flabbergasted, but his publisher's lawyer discovers that he's being sued by a local woman he's never heard of — for plagiarism. She accuses him of breaking into her house and taking her notes. Don't worry, the lawyer tells him, it happens to lots of famous writers — why, it's even happened to Stephen King.

King is one major presence in this book; Edgar Allan Poe is another, from the appearance of a first edition of his The Imp of the Perverse to the tone and diction of Rush's increasingly unreliable narrative as Jack of Spades' voice in his head grows stronger. (Jack of Spades and Finders Keepers both mention many other real-life writers; one who's name-checked in both is Tampa's Michael Connelly.)

As Jack of Spades barrels to its end, its plot takes many twists I won't give away. But, in Oates' tale, does Jack of Spades scare the bejeebers out of Stephen King? Yes.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.