By Maggie James
An engrossing 'straight-up' crime thriller from a master wordsmith
It's been a while since I wrote a book review, and Mr Mercedes by Stephen King is a worthy way to resume! The novel is King's venture into straight crime thrillers, the first of a trilogy. Fans of his horror and supernatural titles won't find their familiar fare here. No clowns, no haunted hotels, no Boo'ya Moon. Instead Mr Mercedes recounts the good versus evil battle of Bill Hodges, a retired police officer, and Brady Hartsfield, a computer genius with a bad Oedipal complex and an even worse loathing of humanity.
The book begins with a bang, recounting the senseless slaying of eight people by Brady Hartsfield, committed by ploughing a stolen Mercedes into a crowd. Years later, retired detective Bill Hodges's failure to capture the Mercedes Killer haunts him as he drifts through his days on a diet of junk food and daytime television. Then he receives a taunting letter from Mr Mercedes, an attempt to goad him into suicide. Instead, it induces the opposite effect, Hodges is spurred into action, committed to capturing the killer before he strikes again. Let the battle commence....
The novel has more twists and turns than a maze, never failing to thrill. Twice in the book (I'll not say more as I don't want to give plot spoilers) the events had me yelling, 'Oh my God!' at the pages. The way King enables Hartsfield to stalk Hodges without the latter realising is creepy beyond belief.
Novelists are often advised to torture their characters to excite readers. In Mr Mercedes, Stephen King doesn't hesitate to dispatch the modern day equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition to persecute his players. Speaking of whom, Mr Mercedes introduces a trio of characters that continue through the trilogy. First Bill Hodges, the man who rediscovers his zest for life through hunting Brady Hartsfield. Jerome Robinson, the computer-savvy student, a foil for Hodges's technical ineptitude. Finally, there's Holly Gibney, a seemingly minor character whose demons seem destined to hinder Hodges, not help him.
The lesser characters are equally compelling. Deborah Hartsfield, Brady's alcoholic mother, inspires empathy as we learn the reason for her drinking. At the same time, her unorthodox relationship with her disturbed son won't win her a 'Mother of the Year' award. Aunt Charlotte is a master study of a self-absorbed whiner engorged with entitlement issues. The only character I disliked (although she's one of the 'good guys') is Janelle Patterson. Her condescending attitude towards Hodges warrants a kick up the backside. She dispenses sexual favours his way as though rewarding a well-trained dog with a ham bone. Yuk.
A dash or humour, and less is not always more...
Unlike many straight-up crime thrillers, the novel is laced with humour. Take our introduction to Bill Hodges. He's at a point in his life when blowing his brains out holds increasing appeal. We witness his ennui via the daytime television shows with which he self-medicates. King's descriptions of a trashy reality TV programme are hilarious, yet provide a not-so-subtle commentary on modern life.
His books have often been criticised for being long-winded. By comparison to some of his work (Under the Dome, The Stand, etc.), Mr Mercedes, at 405 pages, is a short read. Yet it still contains much that critics might say could be axed without interfering with the plot. Take the description of the reality TV show. The fighting between Knockout Bods One and Two and their shared lover doesn't add to the action, reveals nothing about the book's characters. Yet somehow it works. Those passages inject humour, a counterpoint to the awfulness of Hodges's life post-retirement. Yes, King is prone to lengthy prose, some of which doesn't add to his books. With a master wordsmith like him, though, it doesn't detract either. The man is probably capable of rewriting the phone book and making it thrilling. His wizardry with words ensures that, no matter what tangent he zooms off on, it'll be entertaining.
Mr Mercedes is the first in a trilogy, and the second book, Finders Keepers, has already been published. Our heroic trio of Hodges, Robinson and Gibney continue their crime-fighting spree, this time tackling an obsessive fan whose preoccupation with a famous writer goes too far. Wait - haven't we been there before? Annie Wilkes in Misery? King seems to enjoy examining the trials and tribulations of a novelist (Misery, Lisey's Story, Bag of Bones, etc.). I don't doubt Finders Keepers, in King's capable hands, will spin an original twist on a familiar theme.
Back to Mr Mercedes. I devoured this book, loving the ride on which King takes the reader. The only part that didn't gel for me was the final scene, which I thought stretched credibility too far. On the other hand, in its own way it's oddly humorous. Given how I loved the rest of the book, it's a minor issue. And now, thanks to Messrs King and Mercedes, I know what a crush freak is. Believe me, if I could erase that particular piece of knowledge from my brain, I would!
Have you read Mr Mercedes?
I hope you enjoyed this book review! Have you read Mr Mercedes? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Thoughts, opinions? Leave a comment and let me know!
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