Suspense has always been Stephen King’s stock-in-trade, but he’s increasingly turning to crime too. The much-admired Joyland was published last year in the Hard Case Crime series, and his latest book more than lives up to the publisher’s description of a riveting mystery thriller. This prolific author has been back on form in recent years and Mr Mercedes is not far off classic King.
It begins with a typically harrowing incident that underlines the desperation of many people in the Midwestern town where the story is set. In the midst of the 2009 recession, job seekers have been queuing overnight for the chance of finding employment at a jobs fair. Over a few pages, you’ll learn about these characters and their striving spirit – and then a motoring massacre obliterates their hopes and dreams. Eight people are killed and 15 injured when a grey Mercedes SL500 ploughs into the queue at dawn.
This horrific opening feels close to home seeing as King was himself run down by a van and nearly killed in 1999. In fact, there’s a fair amount of King’s trademark horror in Mr Mercedes, though it’s also a procedural of sorts – a pensioner procedural, as ex-detective Bill Hodges is recently retired. He’s divorced, distant from his daughter and so dulled by TV and ready meals that he’s thinking of ending it all with his father’s gun. Then, a year on from the killing spree, he receives a letter from Mr Mercedes.
In fact, this anonymous correspondent signs himself the Mercedes Killer (as the media christened him) and taunts Hodges with the fact he failed to crack the case towards the end of his career. What’s more, the killer makes it clear he’s been spying on Hodge’s post-retirement routine.
It’s an audacious move from a psychopath who might be gearing up for another killing, but it’s also an opportunity for Hodges. He meets up with an old colleague to gingerly extract some information on the case, though decides to investigate this new lead himself. Hodges now has a reason to live and that sense of purpose grows stronger when he begins a tentative relationship with Janey Patterson, sister of the woman who owned the stolen Mercedes that became a murder weapon. It emerges that she was driven to suicide by a letter from Mr Mercedes.
The retired cop takes up the challenge laid down by the killer, who wants to talk online via a secure chat site. And so begins his chilling cat-and-mouse game with Mr Mercedes, as Hodges calls his perpetrator. We know him as Brady Hartsfield, as King’s taken the bold decision to make the killer visible to the reader throughout the story. It’s a move that pays off, as he’s a writer skilled enough to heighten the tension when you know what the killer is planning, while withholding key revelations that have all the shock factor of his bestselling horror novels.
It’s a typical King tale of good versus evil. Hartsfield is a charming monster, who has an unhealthy relationship with his mother. We get an uncomfortable glimpse of his toxic personality, even though he appears to be an amiable member of the customer support team at Discount Electronix, where management have responded to the recession with yet another DVD sale. When it comes to the failure of the American Dream, King is sympathetic yet also savagely funny.
Hartsfield’s tech expertise gives him an edge, while his interest in poisons leads to one of the novel’s truly disturbing scenes. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear he’s aiming for a spectacular that will ensure his name lives on in infamy.
Brand names and pop culture references have always made King’s fiction feel that bit closer to reality. However, Hodges’s relationship with a younger woman and his teenage computer expert sidekick are not quite as convincing. Nevertheless, Stephen King has created a terrifying tussle between a young psychopath and an ex-cop – and it’s heartening to see an older character portrayed as a hero.
We’ll get to read more about Bill Hodges as the author’s revealed that Mr Mercedes is the first novel in a trilogy.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 4 Stars