If you discount time travel tale 11.22.63 (because it hinged heavily on the science fiction element to work) and Joyland (because of its supernatural elements) then Mr Mercedes is King’s first real stab at a crime thriller. It’s no surprise to me that King has gone in this direction, at least for a couple of books (his next book Finders Keepers is a sequel), after hearing about his love for Lee Child and others and the fact that the other books mentioned were already leaning heavily towards that genre.
King is careful to plant this story in a real world distinct from the reality where the likes of Christine and It can exist. He does this by blatantly name-checking his two works (in the space of two pages) and also various BBC and HBO crime dramas. Later on he also, by the medium of the opinion of the fat ex-detective Bill Hodges, slags off the ridiculous Dexter TV show. Usually we would expect King to mention events from previous books to make it clear that this world is the same world where the likes of Christine and It can exist. It’s an interesting departure and in some ways frees up the imagination to look for a new world order free off demons and ghouls.
After the textbook King style shock opening sequence where we get the back story of how Mr Mercedes earned his title he builds up his characters. This where perhaps King strays from this idea of realism a little too far since the demonic Brady Hartsfield seems more like an evil character out of a Marvel film. Hartsfield is so evil he could be a son of Loki and has no redeeming features – even his love for his mother goes way too far beyond the norm. He has a computer lined voice-activated underground lair (ok it’s in his basement but still…) and is a 100% signed up member of the armchair anarchists and complete mental madmen society.
Bill Hodges is also a rather stereotypical hero figure. He eats too much, he drinks too much, he dwells on his failures too much and is incapable of letting the unsolved Mercedes killings go. But he was also the best detective his department ever had. So when he gets a letter from the madman he is eager to get back on the case without going through the proper channels. There are several ‘almost going to the police’ moments in the book that are on the whole as well-handled as is necessary given the readers’ understanding that this is not how this works. Does Mcclane in the Die Hard films ever just report what he’s found to the police and they sort it out? Does he hell as like, although he’s getting too old for that shit he knuckles down and gets the job done with a yippee ki yay at the end.
Hodges has help in the form of the black kid Jerome from across the street and Holly the cousin of one of Mr Mercedes victims. The black kid is a relatively straight forward educated teenager with good grades, wholesome family and interest in computers. The cousin is a forty-something woman with mental health issues and even more computer skills. These characters are I guess a bit less stereotypical, but I have seen a few episodes of NCIS and whatnot and there’s some geeky characters planted among the good guys in these to appease the ratings-hungry TV execs who want to appeal to multiple demographics. King isn’t writing for TV and yet it still feels like he is trying to create an appealing band of misfits rather than keeping it real. I say this because these younger ‘crew members’ come in ever so handy as Hodges has bupkes computer skills and the identity of Mr Mercedes dwells in computer-land.
To me Brady Hartsfield wouldn’t be out-of-place in any of King’s horror novels – how he goes about his first set of killings, his weird relationship with his alcoholic mom and his drive to create more mayhem at a pop concert are all very familiar traits in King’s bad guys. I’m not sure King quite pulls off this transition into crime fiction because he is intent on providing a lot of back story to every character which, with the exception perhaps of Scandinavian writers of crime fiction, doesn’t seem to be a feature of a least those crime thrillers I have read.
In terms of story writing I can’t diss the man who is King. The way he structures this story to be a page-turner is excellent – jumping from character to character like a maestro. The way he holds back the goods on delivering important bits of info is also good – Hartsfield lifts something heavy from his car, but what is it? Hodges has something in a leather wallet that he puts in his pocket, but what is it? Good stuff.
One particular bit of pacing shenanigans that wasn’t so good I felt was when Mr Mercedes has been identified and is finally tracked down. Just before, or it seems almost right in the middle of, a scene where Holly is going to face Hartsfield, King takes us on a meandering trip into Holly’s past. I felt this could have been dealt with earlier, borrowed a little too much to Carrie, and was purposely done to forestall the grand ending. The writer became rather too visible in this section.
For me Mr Mercedes is a good King book, but it is neither one thing or another in terms of genre. In some ways it follows a tried and tested formula and where it doesn’t it lapses into organically formed character based passages typical of King which while satisfying when viewed out of context are rather incongruous to the crime thriller context in which they sit.
I’m keen to read Finders Keepers to see if he can step fully into the crime thriller genre as it stands or whether he is going to dig a new path through the genre and do it ‘his way’. Either approach is okay by me, because I’m his constant reader. Still on a final note I enjoyed this a lot more than Dr Sleep; so make of that what you will…