MR MERCEDES - Stephen King MR MERCEDES

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£20.00

On a foggy April morning, in an anonymous, recession-hit Midwestern city, Brady Hartfield ploughs a stolen Mercedes Benz into a group of people queued for a job fair, killing nine and injuring many more. Six months later, Detective William Hodges retires from the City Police Force, the Mercedes killing one of the unsolved cases he hands over to his partner. Living alone and spending his retirement watching television begins to take its toll and Bill Hodges starts to contemplate suicide. When he receives a letter from someone claiming to be the Mercedes Killer – or Mr Mercedes, as Bill comes to call him – he finds a new reason to go on. Deciding to keep the letter secret from his old partner for now, Bill Hodges goes back to the one loose thread that never made any sense: the owner of the stolen car, and the means by which Mr Mercedes managed to gain access. As Hodges’ investigation progresses, so the madness that drives Brady Hartfield grows, his original plan to help the retired policeman on his way to suicide replaced by something bolder and more public, something that would make his trick with the Mercedes look positively innocent in comparison.

Stephen King’s latest novel is being marketed as a departure for the Master of Horror, though for Constant Reader, the distinction is less clear. All of the elements that make a Stephen King novel are here: strong story, strong characters and that inimitable voice that guides us through the book. Mr Mercedes is, as advertised, a straight crime novel (perhaps a better fit for the Hard Case Crime line than last year’s supernatural-tinted Joyland) but at its core, it’s a return to one of King’s favourite topics: good versus evil. The recent revelation by King that it is the first of a proposed trilogy – with the second book due to drop next year – is just the icing on the cake.

While there are elements of mystery for the reader (just how did Brady get access to the Mercedes, for example), we are aware from the outset of who the perpetrator of the crime is, how he has so much information on Bill Hodges and, to a certain extent at least, what his plans for the immediate future are. Mr Mercedes is not so much a whodunit as an examination of these two men, both at different ends of the spectrum. On the one side we have Brady Hartfield, a cold-blooded murderer who lives with his alcoholic mother and spends his life trying to put a civilised face on the monster that lives just beneath the surface. Brady is one of King’s more insane creations, and the glimpse we get inside his head shows the type of horror at which King has always been adept: the horror in the everyday; the real-life insanity that leads to, to borrow the old cliché, man’s inhumanity to man. Like Under the Dome‘s Jim Rennie, Brady Hartfield is a character that gets under the reader’s skin, and whose demise – hopefully a brutal and slow one – we hope for almost from the moment we meet him.

Retired Detective K (for Kermit) William Hodges is the opposite side of the coin. Like King himself (and there has been a definite trend in this direction of late), Bill is a man in his later years who, without the job to keep him going, and the empty space left by his ex-wife and grown-up daughter, finds himself in something of a rut. Brady, a man with incredibly accurate insight into the human condition, sees this as a weakness, not counting on Bill’s obsession with the case that he left unsolved, or on the old man’s relationship with Jerome Robinson, the local kid who does his lawn and helps when Bill has trouble with technology. Given a new lease of life by the letter from Mr Mercedes, Bill – with the help of Jerome and the sister of Olivia Trelawney, whose grey Mercedes was used to kill nine people over a year previously – decides that he is the city’s best shot at catching this elusive and obviously unbalanced individual.

As you would expect from a Stephen King novel, there’s something down-to-earth and unpretentious about Mr Mercedes. Maybe it’s that familiar voice that has guided us through countless other tales, or the pop culture and topical references scattered liberally throughout the book. Starting slow and taking time to introduce us to the characters, King throws a couple of curve balls – some in our favour, others not – before ramping up the pace in the final quarter or so of the book. The constant switching of action between the two main protagonists keeps the reader on their toes and ensures that for the last hundred pages or so, it is nigh on impossible to set Mr Mercedes down.

While there are plenty of familiar tricks here, despite the shift in genre from what we’re used to from King, there are also some potentially interesting deviations from the usual formula. Unlike the majority of King’s novels, the action here takes place not in the author’s native Maine, but in an unnamed (which is unusual in itself) city in the American Midwest (most likely Ohio, based on the clues dropped throughout). The self-references, too, are handled in a slightly different way, with both Christine and It getting a mention early in the story, but as the well-known pieces of fiction that they are, rather than the usual in-world ties that we’ve come to expect.

‘Creepy as hell. You ever see that TV movie about the clown in the sewer?’

Hodges shook his head. Later – only weeks before his retirement – he bought a DVD copy of the film, and Pete was right. The mask-face was very close to the fact of Pennywise, the clown in the movie.

And in one throw-away line towards the end of the novel, King creates another link between his own worlds and those of son Joe Hill in a reference to the character at the centre of Hill’s debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box.

All of the ingredients that long-time fans of King’s work have come to expect are here, with the exception of the supernatural (which is not as unusual as non-readers might believe). The strength, as always, lies in King’s power to build characters with whom we can empathise (and, more importantly, who we can hate with a passion that exceeds all common sense). While the whole book is a result of the author’s talent in this area, King gives a short, powerful masterclass in the novel’s opening chapter, introducing us to characters whose entire history we will know within the space of ten or twelve pages, before wiping them out before our very eyes with the simple press of the accelerator of a grey Mercedes Benz SL500.

As always, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir when it comes to reviewing Stephen King’s books. Mr Mercedes is an exceptional addition to an already incredible canon, and what better way to start in on the second forty years (well, we can hope!)? With his trademark voice, and all the charm and wit that it brings,  Stephen King has produced a character-centric thriller that should appeal to all readers of that genre, without alienating his long-time fan-base, once again proving that he is without match, regardless of the subject matter.

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