Mr Mercedes – Stephen King’s 65th book, if the Vulture’s count is true – comes to us described as Stephen King’s first thriller. This isn’t to say that he hasn’t written thrilling books before, or books that encapsulate a thriller element (he was doing that as long ago as Firestarter and The Dead Zone) and more to say that this is a book that comes to us sans a supernatural element. For once, here be no beasts. Certainly no cheese string monsters (as we were gifted with in From a Buick 8), no shit weasels (Dreamcatcher), no creature made of bees with bees in its mouth shooting bees out every time it roars or barks or whatever it was it did (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon). That isn’t to say that there isn’t a monster in Mr Mercedes – the eponymous villain is a pretty bad sort – but King attempts to show us how he got so messed up so there is something of a nature/nurture dialogue going on (and another bad mother, which connects this book with Carrie, all those many moons ago).
Before we get to whether Mr Mercedes is actually thrilling, though, let’s have a brief look at the story. The book opens with a long queue of people waiting outside a shopping mall in the early hours, waiting on the possibility of a job. It’s a well told preamble, the King equivalent of a Springsteen song, and like Springsteen King has heart enough to do this well. Unfortunately – didn’t you just know it – the preamble doesn’t really end well for anyone concerned. A Mercedes comes out of seemingly nowhere, ploughs into the crowd and leaves a half dozen people dead and many more injured. Flash forward and Bill Hodges, the detective who worked the case (failing to track down the murderer) is retired, sitting home all day, watching TV, growing fat and considering an early exit using his father’s old gun. His days have lost their point. And then he hears from the Mercedes Killer himself – and Hodges is drawn out of retirement to (quietly) investigate, without his former colleagues knowing (and calling him ‘uncle’ – apparently you get called ‘uncle’ if you can’t retire from the job). But Mr Mercedes is a double header because we also hear from Brady Hartfied, the Mercedes Killer himself, who lives with his mother (a lush who doesn’t mind giving her son the odd hand shandy now and then), works two jobs (one as a bit of a computer handyman and one as an ice cream man) and nurses a seething grab bag of resentments against the world. Hodges is a divorcee, a sad, lonely old man given a second wind by the investigation (even as he knows he’s playing with fire not turning over his new found info to the boys in blue); Brady is by turns cunning, imbecilic, spiteful and messed up. In the early parts of the novel, as Hodges comes to regard his adversary as something of a brainbox – and we see he’s basically a lucky idiot with a few skills – there is a sense of the book pulling in two directions. Eventually however Brady’s faddish demented idiocy (he’s forever plotting and abandoning plots as they mess up) accelerates and you read with a sense of the world closing in around you thinking ‘there’s no way anyone could stop him from causing some damage – it’s just going to be a case of how many people he takes with him…’
It’s a lot of fun. And when I say fun, I mean it’s gripping, you’ll read in a hurry to turn the pages, it’ll distract you from whatever is going on in your life. If you’ve read a lot of Stephen Kings (according to that Vulture count, I’ve read 54 of the devils, which might make Stephen King the author I’ve read the most books by in my life), you may read with an increasing sense of exhilaration – will he drop the ball on this, will he drop the ball on this, will the Sesame Street man at the top of the stairs with all of the cakes fall and get cakes everywhere? He doesn’t drop the ball, he doesn’t get cake all over himself – he, for the most part, gets all the way to the other side with the reader’s goodwill intact. When we arrive at the climax, the climax is over too quickly – but that is possibly the nature of the beast (as it were). Given the rather intense way in which the world of the novel narrows, King can be forgiven for delivering a conclusion that has the reader sitting back, as if a marathon had been run, uttering ‘phew!’ There are also (and King’s Constant Reader will love this) a couple of self referential moments within the same chapter early on in the book that will have you chuckling. All told, Mr Mercedes is one of the good ones.
Any Cop?: A much better read than last year’s Dr Sleep (although Mr Mercedes himself is, like the True Knot of Dr Sleep, something of a dufus – King does appear to be exploring a late period run of villains who are lucky / idiotic / desperate – we’d like another Greg Stillman please), and a solid starter course for Revival later in the year (which is coming garlanded with comparisons to Hawthorne and Poe so the bar is being set pretty high).