by Stephen King
405 pages, Hodder & Stoughton
Review by Pat Black
If you’ve never read Stephen King, and you’re wondering what the fuss is about, I would urge you to sample the opening chapter of Mr Mercedes.
It doesn’t feel like too long ago that I reviewed Doctor Sleep, and it wasn’t. In that time, King has released this new novel, there’s a fresh one on the way, and for all I know he has another half a dozen torpedoes ready to fire whenever his publishers catch their breath. “Prolific” doesn’t seem like a strong enough word.
Mr Mercedes starts off in a foggy night in 2009, with an overnight queue outside a jobs fair in a large Midwestern US city. This is right at the point where the western world’s financial rollercoaster plummeted downwards – not exactly a thrill-ride, although plenty of stomachs dropped. The people who bed down in sleeping bags at the head of the queue are poor, they’ve had back luck, and they’re struggling in lots of ways.
We focus on two characters: a middle-aged guy, divorced, with some uneven road behind him, and a single mother with a newborn baby at her breast. In a very few pages we get to know them. There are some short stories which cover half as much story in twice the space. We might start to believe we’re seeing a new future for this pair as a couple; that miracles can happen.
Then King reminds us: this isn’t an age of miracles.
The chappie in the title is already on his way, cutting through the fog in a prime piece of German engineering. He deliberately drives the stolen car through a jobs fair queue – a premeditated act, a means of doing something, in the Trent Reznor sense, that matters.
They do not stand a chance. Eight are killed, including the man, woman and baby you’ve just met, and fifteen more are injured.
What makes it worse is that the situation already felt like an atrocity before Mr Mercedes applied pedal to metal. These were desperate people, struggling thanks to the efforts of some bankers, deep-mining their humanity. King even references The Grapes of Wrath.
And then… wallop.
If you don’t want to read Mr Mercedes after this opening then drive on, brothers and sisters, straight ahead past this review, and on until dawn. I’ll happily call it the author’s best opening since little Georgie Denborough’s paper boat sailed down a storm drain.
We leap forward a couple of years for an introduction to retired cop K. William Hodges. The K stands for Kermit. For all I know, Kermit might well have been a popular name in the United States before The Muppets mna-mna’d their way onto our television screens. But seeing it here felt like that moment you discover you have a crack in your filling. While eating peanuts.
But (like the peanuts), we’ll pass.
Hodges is retired, divorced and bored, utterly exhausted with daytime TV, piling on weight, and having little to do with the outside world apart from conversations with Jerome, the Harvard-bound 17-year-old who cuts his lawn.
Hodges has a few medals in his drawer, but he never closed the Mercedes killer case, and this bothers him. He’s also taken to fiddling with a revolver while he sits in his chair – a habit noticed by the Mercedes killer, who has begun stalking him.
The killer, a troubled young man named Brady Hartsfield, inadvertently relights Hodges’ fire by writing the corpulent ex-copper a letter, reminding him of his failure. Brady intends to goad and guilt-trip Hodges into suicide – much like he did with the woman he stole the Mercedes from.
This plan backfires. Hodges’ instincts kick in, and he begins an investigation under his own steam, seeking to play the killer at his own game and entrap him. In this quest he enlists Jerome, a smart cookie with computers and much else besides, while his expenses are paid by Janey, the hot sister of the Mercedes’ tragic original owner.
Mr Mercedes is King’s attempt at a classic American murder mystery, a world away from his supernatural output. I suspect he has always wanted to write an Ed McBain/John D Macdonald style thriller ever since The Dark Half; I reckon he enjoyed creating Alexis Machine. Who wouldn’t?
There are a couple of references to King’s own work running through Mr Mercedes. I found these cute, although King’s penchant for intertextuality can be annoying. I loved it in one novel (was it Pet Sematary?) where a character driving through the night gets the chills when they pass a signpost for “Jerusalem’s Lot”.
However, I don’t love what he did with The Dark Tower and other stories, cramming in references to his other novels in a bid to make them all connect. It’s his toybox - but for me, this renders those tales slightly less than the sum of their parts.
In Mr Mercedes this is done obliquely, starting with a reference to the Mercedes having screamed out of the fog “like that movie with the old Plymouth Fury”. Furthermore, the killer behind the wheel wears a mask, which Hodges is told “looks like the clown in that show with the monster in the sewers”.
This is different from the way King normally refers to his own work in that he is acknowledging it as fiction, and not a component of the new world he’s creating. He seems to be making a statement: “That was fantasy; here’s some stuff that’s a bit closer to real life.”
The present tense style is punchy and immediate. But rather than a terse tough-guy narrative, a sprawling whodunnit or a plodding police procedural, this novel is a surprisingly intimate creature, happy to slip its genre leash and allow us to spend time at home with the characters.
Jerome the teenage computer genius is black, and he starts off the story by addressing Hodges in a mock Jim Crow accent under a comic persona. King gets away with this through sheer cheek, but is wise enough to dial it down before it gets too irritating.
I didn’t buy into Hodges’ romantic entanglement with Janey quite so much. It happens conveniently fast for the pair, although great credit must go to King for addressing something of a taboo in written romance: the anxiety and awkwardness of a big-bellied man going to bed with a fit woman.
The author is never afraid to get his hands dirty when it comes to seamier content. In outlining the lifestyle of our killer, King isn’t so much getting his hands dirty as rubbing the grime into the carpet; grease, bits, beasties and all. Brady – literally, a basement-dwelling computer geek – lives with his alcoholic mother, a manipulative character who enjoys a perversely close relationship with her “honeyboy”.
She’s yet another entry in King’s pantheon of monstrous, controlling parental figures. Mrs Hartsfield is a close relative of Carrietta White’s bible-thumping mother and Annie Wilkes, Misery Chastain’s “Number One Fan”.
This awful figure crops up rather a lot in King’s stories, but I don’t think it was ever so overtly Oedipal before (are we counting that dreadful Vampire/Cat People movie King made about 25 years ago… Sleepwalkers?). This lends texture to the characters, much like mould does to a shower curtain, but I dunno if we needed to know about Brady and Mrs Hartsfield’s unique mother-son bonding experience. Wasn’t it disgusting enough that Brady skittled those poor people?
Part of me wonders if King moulded the idea for this book out of little nuggets unearthed from his recent short stories. In his taunting communications with Hodges, Brady reminded me of the letter-writing serial killer, Beadie, from “A Good Marriage” in Full Dark, No Stars. In the OCD tendencies of the doomed Mercedes owner, I wondered if King was returning to ground he’d already covered in “N”, from Just After Sunset. It rang a wee bell, anyway.
A bit like the old Columbo teleplays, the question to be answered in Mr Mercedes is not whodunnit (we meet our rogue early on), but: how will they catch him? It’s not a foregone conclusion. There is what I would term a “Nick Andros moment” that punches us in the guts halfway through, before events build up to a tense finale as Brady seeks to commit another atrocity at a teenybopper concert.
It isn’t a great novel; it’s tense, but loses its way a little when it brings three too-unlikely crimefighters together. And Hodges’ behaviour wasn’t plausible – I liked him as a character, but I refused to believe he would have kept all that new evidence to himself rather than sharing it with his police pals.
But – truism time – King can engineer a story better than most. It’s what he does for a living. You should expect no less. His books are always a smooth drive.
I see he’s got another book out in November, Revival. Also - evidently pleased with his handiwork here - King has said that we’ll probably see the surviving cast of Mr Mercedes return in a couple of sequels.
Our author is a busy boy. Stephen King is working full tilt, machine-gunning us with new titles. He seems to be writing them quicker than I read them.
That’s the way it goes; that’s the way it has to be. We wouldn’t want it any other way. Floor it, brother.