The best way to describe Stephen King’s latest novel is by first acknowledging what its not. It’s not a supernatural horror story. There are no monsters, evil entities, and only the slightest and quickly dismissed mention of ghosts. Nor does it contain any science fiction trappings, like the time-travel theme that drove his 2012 novel 11/22/63. Much of advance buzz would have us believe that his latest is King’s first real contribution to noir crime fiction. That’s a little closer to the mark, but not quite accurate.
In truth, MR. MERCEDES is a masterly told, character-driven suspense thriller that allows King to have some fun with the traditional elements of hard-boiled mysteries.
On a foggy predawn morning, hundreds of unemployed line up at a local Civic Center for a job fair. Suddenly a disguised driver in a stolen Mercedes, hidden by the fog until its too late, plows through the crowd killing eight people and wounding fifteen others before escaping.
Several months later Bill Hodges, one of the police detectives who investigated the “Mercedes Killer,” is having difficulty adjusting to life after retirement. Haunted by the case that remained unsolved when he left the force, Hodges spends his days mindlessly watching TV while drinking beer and occasionally contemplating suicide. Then Hodges receives a crazed, taunting letter from the Mercedes Killer – the “perk” as he refers to himself – claiming credit for the killings. The letter shocks Hodges out of his depressed states as he fears the killer is planning another attack.
The author of the letter, Brady Hartfield, lives with his alcoholic mother and constantly relives the thrill of killing all those people as he sits before a bank of computers and other technological hardware in the basement of the house he was born in. The letter he sent Hodges was intended to push the retired police detective further down the road toward suicide. But when Brady finds that his letter has had the opposite result, he quickly sets out to plan another attack that will cost thousands of lives.
The focus shifts between the perspectives of these two main characters throughout the novel. Knowing that his access to police records is restricted, Hodges calls in as many favors from his friends on the police force as he can. He eventually enlists the help of some unlikely assistants – mostly the college-bound young man who earns extra cash mowing Hodges’s lawn, and the sister of the woman who owned the Mercedes used in the killings. Brady, in the meantime, keeps Hodges under constant watch while holding down two jobs and searching for the opportunity to effectively murder more people with a single act.
King gets us under the skin of these two desperate individuals with uncanny effectiveness. Weaving back-story information near seamlessly with the present action, we feel Hodge’s quiet and lonely frustration in retirement and then how the “perk’s” letter pulls him out of his funk and revitalizes him as he again uses the skills and resources that earned him his reputation for successfully closing cases. Similarly King, who has taken us into the minds of obsessed madness numerous times before, guides us through the roots and causes of Brady’s behavior and allows us to fully understand why his skewed life and emotions feel so natural to this misguided murderer.
Along the way King also demonstrates his vast knowledge of popular cultural references that give his stories such contemporary resonance. Here they include an online chat blog where Brady and Hodges communicate (whose name is the basis for the front jacket artwork), and numerous references to TV shows and movies – including those based on King’s own works.
Most notable, however, is how King utilizes and acknowledges the elements that have long defined murder mysteries. There’s a driven and dedicated detective, of course; the detective’s love-hate relationship with law enforcement; and the detective’s assortment of odd yet amazingly resourceful assistants whose contributions become invaluable in solving the case. There’s even a fedora, given to Hodges by his female assistant, because “every private eye wears one of these.” Finally there is the race against the clock as Hodges and his cohorts discover the location of Brady’s next hit and attempt to foil his plans. These moments, which make up most of the novel’s final section, are as suspenseful and hypnotic as any written by a more celebrated thriller author.
But King being King is not content to simply update these elements and instead impressively uses them to his advantage while acknowledging their traditional roles. In this sense King’s crime fiction doesn’t emulate such titans as Hammett and Chandler, but more the works of James M. Cain, to whom King dedicates this latest work.
King certainly does not need a bigger audience (MR. MERCEDES, like most of his books, was a national best-seller the moment it left the publisher), but he nonetheless might find a cadre of new readers who avoided his previous novels and stories simply because they aren’t fans of contemporary horror.
Everyone else will undoubtedly be impressed at how King makes another popular fiction genre his own while providing us with hours of entertaining and suspenseful reading. —Alan Cranis