King's reigning story

Early on in Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King makes it clear what this book isn’t: there’s a reference to “that old Plymouth in the horror movie that started up by itself”, and then, shortly after, “that TV movie about the clown in the sewer”.

These are, of course, the movies Christine and It, based on King’s own popular early novels. Both feature (and in some cases create) horror-genre staple events that you’re unlikely to find in the real world.

Mr. Mercedes, however, is a departure from Kings’ earlier works in a couple of ways. It’s set in the ‘real world’, for one, with no ghosts or monsters. King has been there a couple of times, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption being one of the good examples. But Mr. Mercedes is also a flat out crime thriller, which King is reportedly a fan of but hasn’t delved into so far.

The story revolves around two characters: a police detective, and the eponymous killer who has escaped from his grasp earlier. Bill Hodges has recently retired from the police force with a pretty good record: he’s caught more than his fair share of criminals.

Now that his life is empty of purpose, he’s slowly sinking into depression and thinking thoughts of suicide. And then he gets a letter: a taunt from one of the criminals he never did catch. This was someone who stole a Mercedes car and drove it, early in the morning, into a crowd of people, killing eight of them. Hodges investigated the case, but beyond interviewing the owner of the car, he couldn’t make any progress on ‘Mr. Mercedes’.

It seemed like a random, senseless killing, triggered by an unlocked car and a disgruntled vagrant. The fact that few clues were left at the scene is odd, and Hodges still thinks something was off, but there isn’t much he can do about it.

But now, in the letter, the killer is telling him the whole affair was foreplanned and thought through. Worse, he says, Hodges is a failure for not solving the case, and he should just go ahead and off himself. The letter has the opposite effect on Hodges: this is a chance to get more information about the killer.

He’ll be “the fisherman, not the fish”. In his investigation he gets help from the most unexpected sources: an old lady in a nursing home, the young black man who mows his lawn, a neurotic middle-aged woman who makes the case her own life’s purpose as well.

Compared to other books in the crime genre, Mr. Mercedes is bulky, at 400-plus pages. However, where Mike Hammer or Sam Spade exist in an unlikeable world filled with selfish characters, King’s people are always explored in depth, their innermost being bared for us to understand and empathise with.

Even Brad, the killer, manages to make us see his point of view. This has always been King’s strength — where other genre writers staple flat characters on to a plot and take them through the genre’s conventions robotically — King makes us care. And unlike a lot of horror fiction, there is no misogyny in his books. In Janey and Holly, King gives us real likeable women — one thinks back to Sadie from 11/12/63, and even Donna Trenton from Cujo, for other examples.

Not to take away anything from his heroes, of course. Hodges is a genuinely good guy, with his (very sharp) wits in full flow. Brad never quite realises what he’s up against. We see Hodges’s own faults and like him in spite of them, and as the book proceeds, King deftly inserts enough of Hodges’s personal traits to keep reminding us that this is a ‘real’ person. This sort of thing always worked in his horror fiction, and here it turns the detective novel into a sort of ‘whodunit of manners’.

If there’s a failing in this book, it is that the good guys never seem quite overwhelmed by the bad guy — in brain power, in luck, in anticipating the next move, they are almost always ahead. I can think of just two specific points in the whole book where something really bad happens to Hodges — the rest of the time he’s on top of the situation.

We had a similar problem with Danny Torrance in King’s previous book, Doctor Sleep. Perhaps King is getting kinder to his characters in recent years? One certainly never thought of Danny as having an advantage anywhere in The Shining.

This minor flaw aside, Mr. Mercedes is a welcome move by Stephen King. While there’s quite an overlap between fantasy and horror in his works, a full-fledged crime novel from him, tinged with his superb way with words and living, breathing characters, will bring in new fans and please the old ones.

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