Stephen King has published 55 novels, pretty much all of them best-sellers. Heaven knows how many short stories, novelettes, screenplays, teleplays and even a couple of non-fiction works have poured from his prolific pen. He’s sixty seven years old, and pretty much defines ‘rich and successful.’ His most recent novel, Mr. Mercedes, came out in June, and he has two more novels finished and awaiting publication, one of them a sequel to this one. I haven’t read all his novels, but I have certainly read most of them. I think he’s a very fine writer, imaginative and consistently interesting.
And Mr. Mercedes certainly must be reckoned among the best works of his career. It’s also stylistically quite different from his earlier works. And that seems to me rather remarkable. For a writer of his age and with his track record to set himself the challenge of refining his craft strikes me as unusual and laudable.
Because up to now, Stephen King has been known almost entirely as a writer of horror novels. Specifically, he’s known for placing classic horror novel tropes in recognizable contemporary settings. ‘salem’s Lot is a vampire novel, set in a modern city; The Shining, a haunted house story set in a ski lodge/hotel, The Stand, apocalyptic fantasy, set in a recognizable American west. Even The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, about an adolescent girl lost in a forest, had a Satanically possessed bear. He loves ghosts and ghouls, loves to tell stories of ordinary people facing some kind of ultimate, supernatural Evil.
But Mr. Mercedes isn’t a horror novel in any of those ways; there’s nothing supernatural in it. It’s still about Evil, but in this case, it’s about a common psychopath, a murderous madman, recognizable as every day’s headlines.
His dedicatory note reads “thinking of James M. Cain,” followed by this quotation: “they threw me off the haytruck about noon.” That is, of course, the opening line to Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of the classic novels of American hard-boiled detective fiction. Mr. Mercedes is basically King’s attempt to write a detective novel in the style of guys like Cain and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and as later refined by the greatest of them all, Elmore Leonard. It features a cynical, past-his-prime private detective, a blonde with a mysterious past, a couple of sidekicks, and an intriguing mystery. At one point, the novel even makes passing mention of Humphrey Bogart. It’s clearly an homage.
But it’s updated, of course, and set in our world, today. Hammett and Chandler’s detectives were cynical about police corruption and Prohibition and the mob; King’s hero, retired police detective Bill Hodges, contends with the aftermath of the world-wide financial crisis, and the villain of the piece imagines himself another 9/11 terrorist, and hopes to beat the death toll of the World Trade Center attacks. And of course, Hodges’ sidekicks are better than he is with computers.
Even the writing style is an homage. Cain was famous for the spare economy of his prose, which is not something you would say about Stephen King, who is rather more addicted to the baroque. “They threw me off the haytruck about noon,” is a terrific opening, straightforward and evocative. King begins Mr. Mercedes thus: “Hodges walks out of the kitchen with a can of beer in his hand.” Simple, strong.
I’m cheating, though; that’s the first line of the first chapter, but the book begins with a preface. That’s King’s forte: he doesn’t start with the protagonist, he starts with the villain. He starts with Evil. It’s the Great Recession. The mayor of a midwest city (unspecified) has announced a job fair; the night before, the unemployed begin to gather. It’s a damp night, not rainy but misty, foggy. Hundreds of people queueing up, many with sleeping bags, clumped together by the City Center entrance. Out of the mist, a Mercedes sedan emerges, smashed into the crowd, killing eight, badly injuring many more. Just as suddenly, the Mercedes guns it away. It’s found a few blocks away, abandoned. A stolen vehicle, no prints, no DNA or hair samples left behind. A senseless killing, a tragedy, an act of terror. And no clues as to who-dun-it.
A few months later, the lead detective on the case, Bill Hodges, has retired, and is contemplating suicide. Hodges is sixty one, overweight, at a loss, now that the one thing on earth he was good at has been taken from him. And then, suddenly, he’s galvanized when he gets a taunting letter from the Mercedes killer. The rest of the novel is about a kind of psychological warware between Hodges and Mr. Mercedes.
We get to know the villain too, a nerd-herd type computer tech named Brady Hartfield. He’s a completely convincing bad guy, a profiler’s dream, but also weirdly sympathetic, like Arnie in Christine, or Jack Torrance in The Shining (the novel, not the movie, where Jack Nicholson is devilish from the get-go). There’s another villain in Brady’s background, too; his alcoholic and murderous mother, with whom he has a believable but incredibly troubling incestuous relationship.
But that’s it. Brady’s not possessed by some evil spirit and his Mom is not troubled by ghosts. No ghouls, no phantoms, no alien forces; nothing supernatural at all. Just a creepy weirdo killer and a good cop, past his prime, trying to catch him before he kills again.
It makes for a terrific read, can’t-put-it-down past-midnight page turner. Of course, I won’t give away the ending. I’ll just say that my heart was thumping the whole last hundred pages. I can’t tell you how much I admire this. I love it when good writers set themselves challenges.