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 of 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 and third books, 'Finders Keepers' and 'End of Watch', have 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.). 'Finders Keepers', however, in King's capable hands, spins an original twist on a familiar theme. And 'End of Watch' delves into what appears to be a murder-suicide. Except that matters aren't, of course, what they seem...
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!
The fulfilment of a long-held dream
Five years ago, in December 2014, I wound up my dog walking business that had enabled me to write part-time, and became a full-time novelist. Delighted by the realisation of my most cherished ambition, I celebrated by touring Thailand and Cambodia for two months. (Those of you who know me well understand how badly I've been bitten by the travel bug!) When I returned, I settled down to my new life, and since then I've written a further three novels and my novella, 'Blackwater Lake'. The latest is 'Silent Winter', a dark story of how the mind responds to solitary confinement. I've enjoyed every minute. No regrets. None at all.
So far I've written and had published seven novels, one novella and a 'how-to' guide for newbie writers. I've also collated three of my titles into a box set, and made them available in audio and paperback formats. Along the way I've signed publishing contracts with Lake Union, Bloodhound Books, and set up my own publishing imprint, Orelia Publishing. I've no plans to stop writing novels any time soon, or to switch genre. I love what I do, and meeting lots of other authors forms a big part of that.
Many people have been very supportive
What have I learned over the last five years? A lot about my fellow humans. I've made big changes, and this can be hard for other people to deal with. In general I've been overwhelmed by the support and encouragement I've received, including from other novelists, but some people have responded negatively. A few have chosen to ignore my new career, others have treated it as a joke - a nice hobby, perhaps, but not something to take seriously. That's a shame, but to be expected - some individuals feel threatened by other people's lifestyle changes. Such reactions have been greatly outweighed by the encouragement I've garnered elsewhere. I've also received wonderful support from unexpected sources, and that's been a pleasant surprise.
Every book is a new challenge
I've also learned a huge amount about writing. I've streamlined my processes, particularly plotting and editing, so they're much more efficient. As for book marketing and promotion, I'm still getting to grips with this area - it's not my natural forte! The geeky side of me has enjoyed setting up my blog and website, as well as getting the hang of the wonderful software that is Scrivener.
I continue to learn more about my particular writing quirks. In common with other novelists, certain motifs often crop up in my fiction - for example, my characters tend to clench their guts a lot in tense situations. (Stay close to a toilet, guys!) I've noticed this with other writers' books; it can be a hard habit to break. I'm working on it...
I'll continue to set myself a new challenge with every novel; so far it's proved both interesting and beneficial. For example, with 'The Second Captive' I explored writing in scenes and using a two-part novel structure. I'd been sceptical before about this, preferring to write in whole chapters, but I discovered I enjoyed that way of working. I'm delighted to report that book won the 'best novel' category in the 2015 Bards and Sages annual awards!
With my next book, I want to plot more deeply than I've ever done before, and see how that affects the editing process. I don't doubt that I'll carry on developing and growing along my writing journey.
It's been a fantastic five years, and I've never regretted my decision to pursue my novel-writing dreams. I shudder to think what I'd be doing now if I hadn't made that change. Life is about learning, growing and expanding, in my opinion, and I want to be doing that until I die.
What do I want to achieve in the next five years?
By 2024, I hope to have at least twelve published titles, and to continue combining writing with my perpetual wanderlust. I'd like to be able to produce my novels more quickly, but I get so hung up on the editing stage it doesn't seem to happen. So maybe I'll content myself with a book a year. Whatever happens, I'm buckling up for an incredible ride! Will you join me?
What makes a reader ditch a novel?
It's rare for me not to read all the way to the end of a novel. I choose my fiction carefully, avoiding genres that I don't enjoy, such as romances. After a lifetime of reading, I know what appeals to me and what doesn't. (Not always, as you'll discover below - sometimes I get it wrong). The other night, though, I gave up on a book after finding some of the content offensive. It got me thinking. What might make a reader ditch a novel? As part of my 'Five' series, I'll be discussing some possible reasons. Let's go!
1. It's badly written
Some novels, whether traditionally or indie published, simply aren't well-written. Poor character development, a failure to round off the narrative properly, plot threads left hanging... the list goes on. Nobody wants to read such books.
Dialogue is a common problem. Some authors struggle with getting it right; their characters' conversations fall flat. Not to mention my favourite bugbear - inappropriate and excessive speech tags. I gave up on one novel partly because the main character rarely said anything. Instead, she chirped and mumbled her sentences, reminding me by turns of a songbird or a sulky teenager. As she was supposed to be a feisty, kick-ass kind of gal, this irritated me. There were other reasons I abandoned the book, but when I read one chirp too many, it was game over.
Speech tags are often unnecessary anyway; if an author has given his/her characters strong enough voices and the dialogue flows well, it should be obvious who's speaking.
2. Bad grammar, spelling and punctuation
A criticism often aimed at self-published novels is that they're full of typos and poor grammar. Not always, of course, but there's some truth in the allegation. Whilst I love what self-publishing has done for the industry, I agree that too many novelists present their work with a disregard for the English language. However, it's also a trend I'm noticing with traditionally published books. It's not unusual nowadays to find typos and even plot errors in novels from big-name publishers. I'm told it's because many publishing houses are axing editors and proof-readers in a bid to cut costs. Whether that's true, I can't say, but it's no longer just self-published authors who have to defend themselves from criticism on this score.
Some people, of course, believe it's not important. They say that as long as the plot flows well and the characters engage the reader, then typos and poor grammar don't matter. I say they do. Language is the medium through which writers create their work; shouldn't they be able to employ it correctly? If a musician plays a wrong note, it grates on the ear. The principle's no different with books. Typos jar on the reader, distracting from the narrative - hardly what the author intended. Would you rather be kissed or pissed?
As for punctuation errors, as Lynne Truss so ably demonstrates in 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves', they can alter the entire meaning of a sentence. Correct punctuation can save lives. Take the following example: 'Let's eat, grandpa.' Miss out the comma, and cannibalism enters the picture - not a happy scenario for our aged relative: 'Let's eat grandpa.' Call the cops, someone!
3. The terrible trio - sex, swearing and violence
I've lumped these together because they all turn off any reader who's sensitive to such issues. Some people don't care for brutality, profanity or sex scenes in novels. As I'll explain later, I ditched one book partly because of its violence. I'm not unduly squeamish, but what I was reading was a step too far for me. When it comes to swearing, I've been told the use of the F-word in my novels has upset some people, and I understand that. I rarely, if ever, swear. Often, though, profanity is necessary in fiction. It would be inauthentic for me to create a character like Adam Campbell in 'Guilty Innocence', and for him not to curse. He's a murderous psychopath - bad language goes with the territory. In contrast, my fourth novel, 'The Second Captive', contains little profanity. It simply wouldn't be right for the characters.
As for sexual content, I love a good bit of smut! I may well write erotica one day. Some people cringe when fictional characters get down and dirty, however, and that's their preference. Each to their own.
4. The novel doesn't get with the reader
Sometimes a novel can be well-written, a popular success, and yet something about it doesn't sit well with the reader. I experienced this with a certain novel, which I won't name as I dislike posting negatively about books or their authors. The book has 53 five-star and 18 four-star reviews on Amazon UK, and has clearly been well received. But I simply couldn't get into it, failing to engage with the characters or the storyline. The author's writing style didn't appeal, either. I read some reviews of the book after I abandoned it, and I'm glad I didn't continue. The book contains scenes of sexual torture along with animal abuse - definitely not my thing. By all accounts, the novel is very well written and has garnered critical acclaim, but for me it wasn't a good fit. My fault - I should have read the back blurb more carefully.
5. When an author promotes his/her own agenda
Sometimes when I read a novel, I sense a personal agenda on the part of the author. This sometimes happens with political or religious issues, and I find it off-putting. As the novelist Iain Rob Wright mentioned in a blog post: 'I would never make my own views entirely obvious through my work, because then I am not creating fiction, I am writing propaganda.' I agree. It's usually easy to spot this one. Typically, a character will espouse a viewpoint that has no bearing on the plot, expanding at length via unnecessary dialogue or narrative. If axing such material wouldn't affect the storyline, then it's likely a spot of personal propaganda on behalf of the author is being deployed. Like many people, I resent being preached at. It may not mean I ditch the book altogether, but it does colour my view of it.
What about you? What would make you ditch a novel?
Apart from the five reasons above, are there any reasons you'd abandon a novel? Does sex, swearing or violence put you off a book? Do typos bother you? Leave me a comment and let me know!
Today marks the release of my seventh novel, 'Silent Winter', which makes me very happy! For the first week of publication, 'Silent Winter' is available for just 99c/p in the US/UK (Kindle version). Either click/tap the image or this link: Silent Winter.
'Silent Winter' is currently available as an e-book from Amazon, and the paperback version should be published within a day. I'm also working on an audio version, but that's a project for 2020. In the meantime, here's a taster of 'Silent Winter' is about:
On an icy November night, Drew Blackmore is beaten unconscious, then abducted. He awakes to find himself in total darkness, naked and chained to the floor. Fed just enough to keep him alive, Drew is unable to identify his captor, or the reason for his incarceration. As reality fades, hallucinations take over. Can Drew escape his prison before madness claims him?
Meanwhile Drew's wife, Holly, despairing of ever seeing him again, turns to his brother for comfort. As the worst winter in decades sweeps the UK, she learns of Drew's tragic past. Could his disappearance be connected with that of a prostitute years before?
A story of how the mind responds to solitary confinement, 'Silent Winter' examines one man's desperate attempt to survive the unthinkable.
A selection of comments from my ARC readers and from Goodreads reviews:
'Excellent storytelling from Maggie James.'
'Blew my mind away… the story kept me at the edge of my seat.'
'Great characters in a complex plot… an amazing read.'
You can watch the video trailer here:
Either click/tap the image or this link: Silent Winter.
Buy your copy from Amazon via this link! Silent Winter
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