I got up at the crack of dawn -- alright, fine, 9a.m., which, for me, may as well be the crack of dawn, since is dawn is something I frequently see at the end of a day but rarely (if ever) at the beginning of one -- and went and bought a copy of Mr. Mercedes, and settled in to read it. I was sitting in my armchair, two cats comfortably dozing on a half-lap each. I got to a early scene involving a couple of cops discussing some cases, and became aware that there was out-of-the-ordinary activity outside, in the parking lot.
I reached over and flicked the blinds to the side, and I saw a police-stamped SUV and a standard-issue police car sitting in the road. Not parked; hogging the middle of the street.
I heard footsteps coming up the stairs, and shortly thereafter I heard a knocking on the door.
Not, happily, my door.
Whichever of my neighbors they needed to speak with never came to the door, and the next few minutes were occupied by occasional knocks, followed by occasional announcements of "Police!"
So, yeah; that's the note on which I began reading Mr. Mercedes.
It's a sweaty, paranoid nightmare of a novel, and if you're enough of a Stephen King fan to be reading a blog like this one, then odds are that you already know the setup. But in case you don't, here goes:
One morning in 2009, a Mercedes blasts its way through a crowd of people in line at a job fair, killing eight and wounding many more. The perp is never caught, and the detective, Bill Hodges, who was over the case retires not too long thereafter. A year or so after that, he receives a letter in the mail from someone claiming to be "Mr. Mercedes." The letter's author wonders if Det. Hodges (Ret.) has been contemplating suicide, as so many formers lawmen do. He invites him to a very private social media site to talk about it.
From there, Hodges becomes embroiled in a case he thought was behind him. We meet the killer early on: Brady, a man who works two jobs (computer repairman a la the Geek squad by morning, ice-cream truck driver by afternoon) and who has what might charitably be called a troubled relationship with his mother.
More than that, I will not say.
The novel runs a bit more than 400 pages in length, and is a definite page-turner. What King novel isn't? The characters are good, the pace is terrific, and the writing is strong. Among recent King bestsellers, I would say it is not in the same league as the epic 11/22/63 or the sweet Joyland, but is arguably as good as Doctor Sleep. Personally, I'd rank it a bit below that one.
What's notable is that King is stretching his reach a bit with this one. He's published two novels for the Hard Case Crime imprint so far (The Colorado Kid and Joyland), and while neither of them fit the brand particularly well, Mr. Mercedes would have been right at home as one of those paperbacks with the pulpy cover art. Instead, it's published by his normal folks, Scribner. Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime must be shaking his head mournfully.
Regardless of the publisher, Mr. Mercedes is a straightforward crime thriller, with nary a hint of the supernatural. There's not a psychic child to be found anywhere. (Although King does make a brief feint in that direction at one point, possibly just to fuck with longtime readers.) I don't get the sense that King has any intention of making a run at James Patterson, though; Det. Bill Hodges (Ret.) is a solid gumshoe, but he is probably unsuited to the task of being a serial character, and I suspect King would have only minimal interest in going that route anyways.
Still, it's nice to see that King, who is now forty years into his career, is still willing and able to take on a genre he's never fully tried on before. There is enough gruesomeness in Mr. Mercedes to make the novel feel of a piece with most of the rest of his work, and I suspect that most of his normal readers will be pleased by his latest effort.
Look for a fuller exploration of the novel here in the next few weeks; I'd like to let it sit a while first, though, and not only allow it to digest, but also allow more of you to catch up with me.
I might or might not tackle a review of Golden Years in the meantime, but before that, I'll definitely have another of my short-story reviews, this time of the little-known obscurity that is "Slade."