It’s no secret that Stephen King is my all-time favorite author (with Lords Moore and Adams coming a close second). I’ve read almost all of his books (including On Writing, a delightful exploration of the art of writing) multiple ties. Minus a new book that I’ve never read before (especially if that book is by the previously mentioned Lord Moore), I’ll always reach for one of his for a little light reading. (Light, as people familiar with King’s work well know, being a relative term.) Typically I view his work as a modern Dickens or Poe (just with more F-bombs) because just like them he is enjoyed by the masses. One could easily see a group of his fans rioting on a dock at the release of one of his books; or perhaps just the weight of an uncut copy of The Stand.
Generally speaking; and this is an extreme generalization; King’s books can be placed into four categories: non-fiction (On Writing, Danse Macabre), supernatural (11/22/63, Joyland), scary supernatural (It, The Shining), and realistic (Rage, Gerald’s Game). (The Dark Tower series and Eyes of the Dragon are in entirely different categories, and yet, as most people know, they tie into almost all of his other books.) His newest book, Mr. Mercedes, falls into that final slot: realistic.
Mr. Mercedes follows a retired detective, Bill Hodges as he begins to track the killer that got away, the eponymous Mr. Mercedes who a year before had killed a number of people. The novel begins with the horrible crime, which the dust cover might give away, but I won’t, and then moves forward a year where we are introduced to Hodges, the former detective contemplating suicide and watching his fill of day time television. (And what an awesomely mythical channel he has: “Jerry Springer,” “Dr. Phil,” and “Judge Judy,” one after the other. If this is a schedule other areas have, I live in the wrong market.) Contact from the infamous Mercedes killer sets him off on a newfound quest to bring him to justice. From there he journeys through his unnamed mid-Western city, back-tracking the case that he never closed. The question then becomes how soon will the killer realize he’s being hunted instead of playing mind games with the detective, and what will he do when he does realize.
Like almost all of King’s books, Mr. Mercedes is a fast paced book; a tight, quick read. (To me, only a few of his earlier books have a slower pacing. One of the things I like so much about King is that he continued to mature and grow as a writer, his voice remaining ever present to the Constant Reader, but always maturing and becoming surer.) His characters, like almost always, are richly developed, and each is easy to keep straight because the consequential characters have their own separate personalities.
Like much of his work it is dependent on occasional coincidences, an idea that often seems to bother readers of books and viewers of movies. My personal hunch is that they find it annoying because they know how much real life often depends on coincidence (which we give cute names like synchronicity because it makes us feel better to think something controls that coincidence). This book is a story of an ex-cop tracking down a mass murderer, not a detective story. From almost the beginning the reader knows who the killer is and where to find him (King excels at the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator, which always gives the reader a privileged perspective). The question for the reader is the same one that runs throughout almost all of King’s books, “Will the Monster be bested? Or will he feed?”
This is not King’s best book by any means; that honor in my mind will always go to It, which I’ve read more times than I can recall. It’s also not his worst book by any stretch; an unfortunate distinction that I hand off to Cell. It suffers from his current obsession with 9-11, but it is a watershed moment in the world and obviously made a huge impact on King. It runs through much of his recent work like a theme and sometimes rises to the top, which is a common trait of King and his writing. Once upon a time, the Kennedy assassination was his underlying theme, and understandably his accident a few years back was also ever present. This is a sign of why people get drawn to his work, because his personality and what is important to him is always there.
This book works, there can be no question about that. As an exploration of modern day terror, it shows that we don’t always have to look over seas, that sometimes what we really need to fear is right here at home. King’s writing is crisp and clean and makes you want to rush through to the end. And yet at the end, as always with him, you’re left with the deep desire that it would go on and on, perhaps a conversation that you could keep having underneath Debbie’s umbrella.