“King’s prose is littered with colourful references and character quirks that can make even the most mundane of scenes come alive.”
Mr Mercedes is the latest book from Stephen King. Following in the footsteps of his recent novel Joyland, it veers away from the traditional perception of King’s work to take on hardboiled crime.
It begins outside an inner city job fair. Hundreds of people are queuing in the early hours for a chance to get one of the few austerity-busting jobs available. Amongst them is a woman who is so poor she cannot afford a babysitter for her infant daughter. She breastfeeds the child in a sleeping bag away from prying eyes in the pouring rain. The crowd of hopeless and desperate people grows into the thousands as dawn breaks. It is at this point that Brady Hartsfield ploughs a cleverly stolen Mercedes SL500 into the waiting jobseekers. The mother and daughter do not survive.
There is no ‘whodunit’ element to Mr Mercedes. The reader knows from the start that Brady Hartsfield has committed this atrocity and that Bill Hodges is the now retired detective that failed to catch him. On the face of it, Mr Mercedes is a clichéd and hackneyed story that has been done to death – the retired cop drinks himself into a malaise until the means to catch one of the white whale criminals of his career lands in his lap – but this is where the story ceases to be typical. In the hands of a lesser writer this book would have become yet another cop thriller, yet King’s characterisation and lively prose elevate this story.
Hartsfield, the twisted mastermind at the heart of the book, is a superbly drawn and disturbing character. A young man who works two jobs: a computer repairman for the elderly and an ice cream seller dishing out cold treats to kids. He then goes home and plots atrocities, reads about bomb making and has a thoroughly unpleasant and inappropriate relationship with his mother. Hartsfield is part Norman Bates and part Al-Qaeda. He’s an unpredictable and enigmatic character who keeps the tension and plot moving throughout.
Hodges initially appears to be a clichéd cop. As the reader meets him he is teetering on the brink of alcoholism and occasionally putting a gun in his mouth as he watches daytime TV. However, an anonymous poison pen letter from Mr Mercedes prompts him into action. He suddenly has the purpose and verve missing from the last year. Using his natural charisma and investigative talent he begins to track down Mr Mercedes, going back over the old case notes and discovering things about those involved – and himself – that he doesn’t particularly relish.
King also vividly paints the supporting cast. Janey Patterson, the sister of the original owner of the Mercedes, also has a vendetta against Mr Mercedes as his poison pen letters drove her sister to suicide. She is a younger woman and Hodges’ first port of call when investigating the crime. She provides a great foil for Hodges, bringing some colour to his dour persona. The scenes between the two of them are well written, King poking fun at the overweight Hodges and his pursuit of a beautiful younger woman.
The two other characters who help Hodges with his off-the-books investigation are Holly Gibney, Janey’s niece, and local high school kid Jerome Robinson. Holly is a mentally disturbed yet highly intelligent woman in the thrall of her tyrannical mother. Her interactions with Hodges and subsequent involvement bring her out of herself and, like Hodges, she finds a purpose in trying to track down the killer. Although at times she comes close to becoming unbelievable as a character – her mood swings and hang-ups seem contrived – yet she shows her worth later in the book, enough for this to be forgivable.
Jerome Robinson is a perfect addition to Hodges’ mishmash of helpers. An Ivy Leaguer in waiting and a computer whiz, Jerome constantly brings Hodges up to speed with 21st Century technology, usually accompanied by a quip about the ex-cop’s age. It is Hodge’s empathy and connection with Jerome that drives the frenetic pace of the novel as it reaches its breathless conclusion.
The horror in Mr Mercedes hits the reader close to home. A lunatic ploughing a car into a crowd of people, a maniac selling ice cream to children.. King has always tapped into real-life fears, yet here – set against a background of economic hardship and depression – he hasn’t been this close to the bone in years. King’s villain has been unhinged by years of oppression within his own family and his job and he is frustrated by circumstances in the wider world that are beyond anyone’s control. This is what makes him so dangerous, yet also so uncomfortably relatable.
Mr Mercedes is a master class in how to write characters. A small cast of richly drawn and compelling individuals pulls an ordinary plot to heights that it could not have reached in the hands of any other. The last hundred pages pulse and flow towards a gripping finale, building to a fitting ending for a tale that has been taut and restrained throughout. King’s prose is littered with colourful references and character quirks that can make even the most mundane of scenes come alive. He has taken a different tact with Mr Mercedes and has produced possibly the best thriller of the year. Truly a man back on top form.
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Hardcover (496 pp)
Release Date: 3 June 2014
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