I love a good mystery. When I was a kid, horror fiction was my first love, but by the time I started Junior High I had also become obsessed with whodunits and sought out every mystery series in existence. When I heard last year that Stephen King was writing a hard-boiled detective novel I think I squeed a little.
“Mr. Mercedes” is set in a Midwestern town in 2010. The nation is still in the middle of a recession, and retired police detective Bill Hodges is so depressed and lonely that he’s thinking about eating a bullet. But then he receives a taunting letter from a killer he was never able to apprehend. The sick bastard had driven a stolen Mercedes-Benz into a crowd of job fair applicants, killing eight people. Then he had used an online social site called Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella to goad the car’s owner into committing suicide. Mr. Mercedes hopes to do the same to Hodges. Of course, in the meantime, he’s also planning a more ambitious attack on the public. Hodges is determined to stop him, and a game of cat-and-mouse ensues.
The novel isn’t a whodunit (as far as us readers are concerned). King alternates Point of View between Hodges and the killer, young Brady Hartsfield – who, like the character of Norman Bates, definitely has mommy issues.
Hodges’ motivation to intervene, despite his retirement, becomes even greater when he’s hired by Janey Patterson to find the secret tormentor who drove her sister to commit suicide.
The first half of this book has an old-fashioned feel to it that brings to mind the works of Chandler and Spillane. A broken, cynical detective haunted by the case he couldn’t solve gets involved with two wealthy sisters. An unlikely romance develops, leading to more twists and turns and a race against time. But even when Janey buys Hodges a fedora, he realizes he can never be a real-life Philip Marlowe. He lets Janey try it on for size, along with his seventeen-year-old neighbor and computer-whiz sidekick, Jerome. The fedora becomes somewhat symbolic, and with its sudden disappearance the book changes course and mood.
Hodges makes some mistakes, but so does Brady Hartsfield. And in the second part of the story we are introduced to a new important ally who comes to the aid of Hodges and Jerome. Holly is Janey’s neurotic, middle-aged “spinster” cousin. At first, I wondered if I’d be able to handle her eccentric behavior without becoming too annoyed, but I was won over fairly soon. King had me rooting for this unlikely trio. Hodges knows he can’t play the hero, and he won’t be able to catch the bad guy all on his own.
In the old days, a tale would pit a gumshoe (always a loner and the only hero of the story) against the mob or an evil mastermind. But now society has to deal with a different kind of enemy: mass murderers who gun down people at a McDonald’s restaurant or plow through a playground filled with children.
The world of Brady Hartsfield is a dark, hopeless one. I can’t say I had much sympathy for him, but I understood why he became a monster.
Just before I read “Mr. Mercedes” I found out that it was the first book in what would most likely be a trilogy. This pleases me. I love the main characters and I enjoyed the story from start to finish. So if you aren’t a fan of horror and you’ve been afraid to read a novel written by Mr. King, I suggest you give this one a try.