Stephen King calls Mr. Mercedes his first hard-boiled crime thriller, but it’s not his first to feature a killing car. The man who gave us Christine and Maximum Overdrive could have rested on his laurels, crafting another supernatural kill-o-thon without blinking an eye. A reference to a DVD about “that TV movie about the clown in the sewer” confirms this isn’t Castle Rock or any place he’s taken us before. There are no subterranean clowns, spooky hotels, or vampiric demons here. The monsters, however, are still very real.
Overweight and alone, recently retired detective Bill Hodges spends his days ingesting reality television, contemplating ending it all with his father’s old .38 Smith & Wesson. Highly decorated, he left the force with a near-perfect record cracking homicide cases. Emphasis on near-perfect. While Bill left several cases unsolved, a blast from the past returns to shock him from his stupor.
On a cold morning like any other a crazed lunatic barrelled a stolen Mercedes-Benz SL500 into a group queuing outside a sports stadium to attend an early morning job fair, killing eight and wounding several others. Dubbed “Mr. Mercedes” by the press the killer was never caught, seemingly disappearing after abandoning the car and rubber clown mask he used to hide his identity.
Now, one year later, Mr. Mercedes has reemerged from the shadows, cruelly taunting Hodges and survivors with intentions of further heartbreak. While Hodges may not know the killer’s identity, we do. That would be one Brady Hartsfield; part-time computer fix-it guy, part-time neighborhood ice cream man, and full-time psychopath.
Superficially, Brady’s outline almost seems disappointingly cliche in all the ways you’d expect from such a despicable creature; a white, high-functioning loner, seething with racism, with plagued with lascivious mommy issues. Brady’s viciousness may seem cartoonish at times, but King refuses to make him a sympathetic villain. Through Brady’s eyes we’re given full access to the mind and motivation of a true psychopath at work. He’s among King’s most despicable creations, pretty striking when you consider what the company he’s in.
Midway through Hodge’s quest to solve the Mercedes killings becomes something of a red herring as we slowly become aware that Brady has a much bigger, more diabolical scheme in mind. It’s here when Hodges becomes a modern-day Philip Marlowe of sorts, even rocking a fedora, matching his old-school detective gut instincts to a world of technology and computer forensics.
But he won’t have to go it alone. Jerome, a gifted teen with the unfortunate habit of lapsing into minstrel speak (for shock-effect), becomes a real asset and the closest person Bill has to a real friend these days. Plot necessities soon introduce the duo to Holly, a Lexapro-popping, emotionally disturbed 40-something woman with a close personal connection to the killings that demands resolution. Events will soon bring this trio together in a mad-dash race to one of the most thrilling finales King’s ever written.
Mr. Mercedes isn’t as much a classic whodunnit because King lets us know upfront who done it. His slow-burn approach pays off in spades as Hodges and Brady’s dueling perspectives race toward their inevitable clash, the last 100 pages particularly gripping. It’s clear he’s not just a fan of the genre, but isn’t afraid to take chances with our expectations, weaving what might have been a straightforward game of cat-and-mouse by a lesser author into something more psychologically complex, and far more satisfying.
It also seems we may not be done with Hodges, Jerome, and Holly just yet. King has promised the trio will return next year in Finders Keepers, the second part of a planned trilogy in a brand new literary sandbox to play in. In a world of serialized mystery fiction King isn’t ready to join the ranks of Patterson and Connelly just yet, but that’s hardly a slight. Here is an author in the midst of an impressive career and creative revival, and if he’s able to inject his master class world-building skills into a genre riddled with predictability and cliche then we should have something to look forward to.