When it comes to the horror genre, few writers can hold a candle to Stephen King. There’s a reason why both fans and critics alike refer to King as the undisputed King of Horror or the Grand Master of Horror Fiction. He’s just that good. For many of us horror fans who grew up in the 90s, Stephen King has managed to instill in us both a fear of clowns and a love for terrifying reads that will have us begging our parents for a night light or to check under our beds for imaginary monsters that reside solely and spectacularly in our heads.
There’s something to be said about how well Stephen King manages to turn the creature comforts and the reality of small-town living into something sinister and nightmarish. Birthday clowns and balloons? Here’s a creepy killer clown with a red balloon. Family vacation in a hotel? Madness, mayhem, and murder, or rather bloody Redrum. Man’s best friend? How about a friendly nip from Cujo? And as if high school bullying and getting your period for the first time weren’t horrible enough, King had to up the ante with Carrie’s murderous rampage. I still can’t look at tampons in the grocery store without imagining a gaggle of teenage girls screaming, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”
In Mr. Mercedes, King does it again. This time with a psychopathic killer computer repairman/ice cream truck driver. Except, there’s a twist. There’s nothing paranormal about Mr. Mercedes. No, this isn’t another one of King’s horror bestsellers, though I assure you that it’s just as terrifying as his scariest books. In this 2014 starter of the Bill Hodges trilogy, King ventures into the territory of mystery and hard-boiled detective fiction. And man, it’s definitely a nail-biter.
***Possible spoilers ahead***
The book starts out in the parking lot of a sports stadium in the Midwest, where thousands of desperate jobseekers are expected to line up for a chance at a job—any job will do. It’s 2009 and the recession has hit the United States really hard. The early birds camp out before dawn, squeezing themselves into the spiraling queue, trying desperately to keep warm on that chilly spring day. As cars begin to fill up the stadium’s massive parking lot, one vehicle stands out. It emerges from the mist in all its shining grey glory—a Mercedes SL 500. The lights of its headlamps cut through the morning fog before the car revs up and goes straight for the crowd, killing eight people and injuring over a dozen more. It’s a terrible image but an effective one. It’s one heck of a potent symbol for the inequality experienced by the working class, often under the hands of their rich employers.
In the next chapter, King fast-forwards to months after the crime. Here, we meet Bill Hodges, the book’s protagonist. As far as crime fiction clichés go, this book carries some big ones. Hodges is a retired and divorced lead detective who is profoundly unhappy with his newfound ‘freedom.’ He sits in front of the telly, day-in and day-out, occasionally contemplating suicide. One fateful afternoon, Hodges gets a letter from the stadium killer who calls himself, Mr. Mercedes. The letter is heavy-handed and an obvious taunt for Hodges to kill himself—after all, the Det. Ret. did fail to solve the biggest case of his career. Of course, it does just the opposite for Hodges. It fires him up, and we all know that a desperate man is always a dangerous one.
Now, because this isn’t a whodunnit ala Agatha Christie, King discloses the identity of the killer early on. It’s 28-year old Brady Hartsfield—the bland and forgettable computer repairman and ice cream truck driver with mommy issues and a dark, dark past. Months after successfully evading the cops, Hartfield is feeling restless for his next kill. He could have gotten off scot-free, but instead, he makes the mistake of targeting Bill Hodges. It’s game on between the detective and Mr. Mercedes.
Throw in a few more clichés—a beautiful love interest, (Janey Patterson), who inspires Hodges to fight harder, an unlikely duo as his crime-fighting partners, (teenage tech master Jeremy Robinson and anxiety-riddled genius Holly Gibney)—and you might think it’s going to be a predictable story. Except you’d be forgetting one thing: It’s Stephen King. Fresh and terrible twists are his forte. Just when you think you know where Mr. Mercedes is headed, the book careens off the usual path, starting you down on the fast lane and keeping you on the edge of your seat the entire ride.
Mr. Mercedes is a fast-paced cat-and-mouse chase that has a plethora of strong and well-written characters. While the book may not delve too deep into their backgrounds—barring Brady Hartsfield, of course, who might be evil to the core but knowable through his trauma and childhood experiences—we still get a good feel of why each character is the way he/she is. Personally, I really like the character development of Holly Gibney. We see a lot of growth in her character without compromising too much of her personality. As for the inevitable and trademark Stephen King scares, well, let’s just say that there’s enough unsettling and stomach-turning imagery to satisfy the most gore-loving of readers—this one included.
All in all, Mr. Mercedes is one heck of a page-turner and one that I’d recommend to all fellow Stephen King, horror, and crime fiction fans.