If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ll know that Teresa and I are not just Stephen King fans, we’re mild-to-moderate King evangelists. He’s a genuinely good writer, and he writes a variety of things that aren’t horror at all, so we generally feel we can lure you in, even if you’re not interested in reading about Gruesome Killings From Beyond. (Though if you are, I can make recommendations there, too.)
I was very pleased to see that King was coming out with a new novel this summer, Mr. Mercedes. His last couple of books, Doctor Sleep and 11/22/63, were absolutely firing on all cylinders, top-of-his-game King — the first in particular about struggling with addiction, a worthy successor to The Shining, and the other about the consequences, dilemmas, urgencies and poignancies of time travel. With King on this kind of a roll, I was really looking forward to the new one.
Mr. Mercedes, as it turns out, is a solid thriller with nothing supernatural about it. As the book opens, someone runs a grey Mercedes into a crowd of people waiting for a job fair to open. All that solid German engineering does its work, and the attack kills eight people and injures dozens more. The killer escapes, leaving not a trace of DNA behind, and the main police officer on the case, Bill Hodges, retires with his medals before they have a single break in the case.
It turns out, though, that the killer is planning something far bigger and far worse. He reaches out to Hodges through the internet, unable to avoid drawing attention to himself and his perfect crime, and there ensues a suspenseful race: will Hodges (and a highly-unlikely assortment of helpers) get the killer before he carries out his plan?
I’d place this novel in the middle of the pack for King. We’re not talking about the quality of his more recent books; this is no Doctor Sleep and it’s certainly no The Shining. (But, thank goodness, it’s also no Christine.) It’s so radically unlikely that Hodges would not have handed over this case to current police and police resources, I kept tripping over it in my mind. King gave a lame reason for it, but he just never made it plausible for me. I was also a bit suspicious about the killer’s initial letter to Hodges. He was highly intelligent, and the reason for the letter seemed unlike his usual M.O., so it felt a bit like a McGuffin. There’s also some pretty weak characterization for all but the two main antagonists, Hodges and the killer (the killer is especially great.) Since characterization and dialogue are normally King’s strengths, I was disappointed.
On the other hand, the plot points are great. Hodges’ police work is realistic and interesting, and the corresponding work of the killer is fascinating and scary. Each little escalation on both sides is grip-the-book-harder suspenseful, if not always what you might consider prudent. If I couldn’t get behind most of the characters, I could definitely get behind two of them, and the way the hunt for the killer progressed. The final scenes of confrontation are worth staying up late to finish, but they also have a touch of satire about them that is pure King.
Middle-of-the-pack King is still worth reading, in my view, and I enjoyed the book, which I ripped through in about a day and a half. Don’t go in expecting a masterpiece, but do go in expecting to have fun.