Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

With this 2014 novel, Stephen King has finally written a pure mystery. The only touch of horror is in the mind of twentyish villain, Brady Hartfield, as he plots a new mass murder to follow the massacre that opens the novel. He is labeled Mr. Mercedes because he drove a stolen Mercedes into a crowd of people as they awaited the opening of a job fair at a local shopping center.

Brady’s adversary, and the detective hero, is retired cop Bill Hodges, who is in his sixties and overweight, and who is being taunted by Brady for his failure to solve the shopping center massacre. The novel’s initial focus is on Hodges seeking to identify the source of these taunting messages—and King alternates their opposing viewpoints as they move closer and closer, and Hodges learns of a new mass murder plan. Indeed, alternating perspectives is a normal strategy for creating suspense, and one that again works here.

What does not work for me is Brady’s characterization. King makes him a psychopath who is in an incestuous relationship with his mother. He gets a rush from killing others, and is using his knowledge of computers and electronics, plus an inherent resentment against the world to plan the new attack. He poses in normal life as an electronics repair man and an ice cream vendor, but he does not come alive for me in any of his roles. Perhaps because of his strange, submissive relationship with his mother, plus the details of his normal life, he also does not seem to pose as a threat to the cop he is trying to provoke all through the novel.

On the other hand, the cop, Bill Hodges, is both sympathetic and believable. One can easily identify with him. Because he recognizes his weaknesses, acknowledges he has an ex-cop’s thoughts of suicide, recognizes his body can no longer keep up with the young, and is bored by a life of retirement after his adventures as a cop. He is also dumfounded when the fortyish, attractive Janey Patterson falls for him as much as he falls for her. She is the sister of the now dead owner of that Mercedes, and, like Hodges, wants very much to find the killer and see him punished.

What also adds to the solidity of Hodges’ character is that he stands up to his unknown stalker, not only rejecting the taunting messages to commit suicide but also determined to bring the mass murderer to justice. In fact, because he is being challenged to use his skills once again as a cop, he now finds life worth living. Moreover, his characterization is enhanced when he is joined in his search for the villain by two good people who become his friends: Jerome, his gardener, who is a black teenager and a computer whiz; and Holly, Jamey’s cousin, a nervous fortyish spinster who has been living under the wing of a domineering mother.

What should also be noted is King’s cold-blooded treatment of these characters we relate to and admire. He is not afraid to kill off any of them for the dramatic affect it will have, and this is how he creates a huge surprise in the center of the novel. In his own way, King is as cold-blooded as his villain, who at the climax is plotting to kill thousands of innocent girls as they gather in a local auditorium to cheer the latest pop music group.

One element, however, is not fully convincing in that climactic scene. It is a health issue that takes Hodges out of the picture and leaves in the hands of others the final effort to stop the massacre. I was unprepared for Hodge’s medical problem, and still wonder why King left the outcome in the hands of presumably less capable colleagues. Is it because he is distraught at the loss of one of his friends, and no longer able to commit himself? Is that also why King made the physical effort required of Hodges too much for him? It would seem that the design of the concert hall could have been modified by King to accommodate Hodge’s older physique.

I also have a minor reluctance to accept the role that Holly plays at the end. This neurotic middle-aged woman has the key role in the climax. She becomes the novel’s heroine, and I was not quite ready to accept this, even though she wants revenge for her sister who was driven to suicide by still other taunts of Brady. For this character conversion is a far cry from the sudden death that King wrote earlier for one of his other characters. It is as if King wants to stress the positive capabilities in all of us, and at the same time is cautioning us that a cruel fate can also intervene in our lives at any time.

I am certainly grateful that King avoids here the metaphysical horrors of his past novels. And has concentrated on a heroic portrait of this ex-cop. In true dramatic fashion, he slowly brings that ex-cop closer and closer to the neurotic villain who gets a kick out of killing people—in fact, the more Brady kills the better he feels. And he compounds the tension by keeping them apart, by having the killer exchange tantalizing messages with Hodges at the Blue Umbrella chat site, and revealing there elusive clues to his identity. If only that villain were more of an actual threat to Hodges, and had more of a possibility of success in their fateful confrontation.

This is a longer work than most mystery novels, primarily because of the detailed profiles King draws of both his cop and his villain. King’s strength is in such details, the daily events that give substance to his characters. But here, the details of Brady’s life as a repairman and an ice cream vendor are not that interesting. Nor is his neurotic life with his teasing mother. And the details of Hodges’ search for the villain, such as the many messages they exchange on the web site, also seem to extend that search more than is necessary.

Despite these faults, this is an admirable mystery novel. It certainly sweeps the reader along with its constant developments. And Hodges has interesting relationships with both his friends and the cops he once served with. It’s just that the threat of a new violent massacre at the climax is not as strong as it might have been. And the heroic sharing of success is not as convincing to me as King undoubtedly wished.

I certainly hope that King continues in this mystery vein, rather than reverts to tales of horror. It is his characters that give his novels substance, as well as the environment in which they exist. And for me, suspense is more real when it belongs to that real world. (October, 2018)

A Star Called Henry, by Roddy Doyle

This as a magnificent novel of Ireland’s struggle to free itself from England in the early 20th century. This 1999 work is the first in a trilogy presumably about Henry Smart, the hero here. The novels that follow are not, according to later reviews, as rich and powerful as this one, but no matter. This is not only a great work but also a complete work that stands fully on its own.

We first meet Henry as a newborn baby and then watch as he is alienated from his disorganized, hard-scrabble family, until, in rebellion at about five, he begins trailing after his ne’er-do-well father, also called Henry. From his father, he learns how to live off the streets as a poor urchin, and how to escape down its cobbled lanes and even underground through its sewers. He also watches how his father uses his artificial leg to defend himself and to attack others. It is a wonderful Part One, as the reader sympathizes with and identifies with a young Henry, especially after his father abandons him and he is left, at age eight, to guide his ill-fated brother Victor in a mutual struggle to survive in their world of poverty that Henry himself has learned to resent.

In Part Two, Henry is a teenager, and we encounter him trapped in and experiencing the siege of the Dublin Post Office, an historical set-piece that is brilliantly described. He also finds the love of his life, Miss O’Shea, who is a decade older but is taken with this now six-foot, handsome youth, as she remembers his effort to become a student of hers years ago. Eventually, Henry escapes the Post Office, and in Part Three he reaches seventeen and joins Ireland’s violent struggle for freedom, working under Michael Collins and using as a weapon the artificial leg he has inherited from his now dead father. But as he progresses in the cause, the reader is challenged to continue identifying with this youth.

For while he is recruiting and training followers for Collins, he also becomes an assassin The violence in him erupts, and he begins killing the enemies of the Irish movement in cold blood, often after simply being given their name on a scrap of paper. He does not ask why. Some are occupying soldiers, and the reason is obvious. While others are Irish and are sometimes killed either for the convenience of the cause or for the personal motive of an individual rebel. But Henry follows orders. He believes in his Irish mission and in the necessity of violence. Ironically, however, when the movement achieves success, his own name will end up on a scrap of paper, because the cause regards him as a hard-boiled non-conformist, one whose independence may be inconvenient for the plans of the new Irish leaders.

The English are continually after Henry, of course, and he must constantly avoid them, which adds to the suspense of the novel. Indeed, what reader does not wish a novel’s main character to use his freedom to drive the novel and, of course, determine its direction? As a counterpoint, however, to the novel’s thriller aspect, our hero seeks out and rediscovers Miss O’Shea, which brings out the idealism and tenderness that remain within him, and which re-enforces our ability to identify with him despite his violent role in the rebellion.

Amid all the cruelty, Doyle also brings to his novel a poetic touch. Some of his descriptions reveal this, but the most prominent one appears on the opening page, where Henry’s poor, destitute mother looks to the heavens at night and calls one star Henry. She names it after her first son, also called Henry, who died in childbirth, and whom she now sees looking down upon her and her family, a child that is ever present in her memory. And our Henry resents that Henry, who was called by God in the eyes of his mother, when he regards his own poor and neglected status in his destitute neighborhood.

One drawback to the novel is the ending. It is not as satisfying as its rich portrait of Ireland’s rebellion, but it does bring a completion to this work. First, we find Henry in jail, as if the British are not completely incompetent. But if we do not witness his being captured, we are in the room as he is being tortured, and it is a scene as gruesome as some of his murders. Indeed, it is so brilliantly done that the reader feels the experience he is undergoing. But then he escapes, albeit somewhat conveniantly; and in the final scenes he is warned by former colleagues to leave Ireland. Before doing so, however, he gains retribution for the death of his father, contributing to the novel’s sense of completeness.

There are multiple qualities behind the success of this novel. First comes its narrative drive, such as the siege, the assassinations, and the attacks on the British and those Irish who are soldiers of fortune. Next is the character of Henry who is not full of himself, despite his appeal to the ladies and his successful efforts for the cause. Third is the gritty portrait of Dublin and some of rural Ireland. Fourth is the constant tension Henry experiences, both to avoid the English pursuers and to survive the moments of personal happiness. And fifth is its objective portrait of the Irish rebellion, its violence, its infighting, its adaptability, and, finally, the internal politics among its survivors after their success.

Above all, what makes this novel work is its complexity. As history often is. There is the complexity of evil serving a good. There is the injustice of the English presence in a world that is not theirs and among a people who both accept and reject those English. There is the complexity of the ambitious and the selfish taking advantage of good ends to serve personal needs. There is the complexity of the poor struggling for power and the powerful struggling to serve themselves, and often the enemy. And there is the moral complexity of untamed violence acting in the name of justice.

This work is so complete in itself, and satisfying, that I am not tempted to aggressively seek out its companions. But that does not mean I am not curious about those successors. For Doyle has established a clear reputation with his previous works, and one senses the remainder of the trilogy, called The Last Roundup, will offer many pleasures. (October, 2018)

Bishop’s Progress, by D. Keith Mano

This is an interesting hospital novel within a religious framework, but the 1968 work is also notable as a novel that slowly changes its mood as the reader moves into its story. It begins with a supercilious Protestant bishop being rushed to a hospital because he has a serious heart problem. He acts quite superior to his secretary, the taxi driver, and the hospital personnel. And one follows his distinctive attitude with a quiet smile. One feels superior to him, as if one understands him but that he himself does not realize the impression he makes.

The bishop, Whitney Belknap, demands a private room. But there is none, and into the room he is given there soon arrives an innocent young Catholic boy, a cranky old man who is on life-support, and a garrulous, cantankerous, lecherous middle-aged man. These are Jimmy Lopopulo, who also has a heart problem, David Farbstein, who has just had a heart operation, and Artie Carson, who has stomach cancer. All four are, like the bishop, patients of a mysterious Dr. Snow.

As the bishop interacts with these patients, the mood of the novel changes. All are confronting death, and Jimmy and Artie particularly look to the bishop for support and comfort. There develop long conversations, with Artie particularly, about the need for faith and what happens after one dies. Which are also raised by the youthful Jimmy, even though he seems unalarmed by the threat of death around him. However, the bishop becomes very concerned about the boy, and the reader detects a changing mood in the novel.

The bishop has written a popular religious book that heralds love as the basis for human existence, more so than the trappings of religious faith. But now, being exposed to these patients and their concern for the afterlife, he becomes interested in them, no longer regards them superciliously, and begins to alter his feelings about religion. Indeed, each chapter closes with an italicized prayer, as the bishop directly and humbly addresses God in behalf of both himself and his fellow patients.

The reader initially senses this change in the bishop because of casual statements whose meaning the man himself does not explain. But other mysterious developments occur as well, such as that patients seem to disappear, such as that there is no record on the hospital staff of Dr. Snow’s assistant, a Dr. Crecy, or of a nurse, Miss Black. So do those people really exist? Or are they a figment of the bishop’s imagination, even perhaps a symbol? Moreover, Dr. Snow himself is presented so abstractly, with his high intelligence, his self-assuredness, and the professional respect he has, that one wonders if he also is being presented as a symbol. Some critics have even detected an air of Mephistopheles about him.

One particular symbol I could not figure out is the view from the patients’ window of the Hudson River. The bishop constantly goes to the window and refers to that view, including sailboats, barges, and tugboats. I suspected that life on the river represented something, but what was not clear. At the end, there is even a hurricane, in which the wind and rain batter at that window. Does this view represent concern for the world outside? Or is it primarily to set up the bishop’s dream at the end of the novel?

For that dream is quite confusing. In it, the bishop is floating in a small dory down a river and is headed toward the sound of a huge falls. One initially reads this as a metaphor for dying, but one also wonders if this is simply that metaphor, or is the bishop actually dying. He awakens, however, and then begins dressing himself. Whereupon, Dr. Snow returns, and we learn the bishop does want to have his scheduled heart operation, and thus be under the control of Dr. Snow. The novel ends shortly afterward.

But what does it all mean? According to the book’s flap, it means his fellow patients have shown him that his prestige as a bishop has endangered his immortal soul, and, recognizing this finally, he is fighting at the end to save it, fighting to live up to the beliefs he has been teaching Jimmy and Artie. By the way, these two characters are the most believable in the novel—unlike the bishop, who is called upon to represent a religious perspective as well as be a human patient with a bad heart. And unlike Dr. Snow, who represents, the flap says, material and technical progress, along with modern authority’s demand for obedience.

However, these various symbolic meanings did not come across to me while reading this work. Why? Is it my failing? Or did the publishers also believe readers might miss that meaning, and that is whey they included an explanation on the flap?

Perhaps so, the more I think about it.

For I also think that Mano, in this first novel, has focused too much on meaning and not enough on his characters. Only Artie and Jimmy, as I said, come across as real people. In fact, the bishop’s religious doubts would seem to offer a prime opportunity to explore more deeply his human side. And thus help the reader to identity with him, regarding him with more sympathy, more interest, more understanding—rather than trying to puzzle out what his role is here, why his mood is changing, and why the author has him offering Artie and Jimmy extensive religious stories and assurances of life after death. Ideally, I think the emphasis should be on what is happening inside him, the bishop, rather than on his roommates.

What does work here is the hospital setting, with its long, boring hours, the routine interruptions, the obedience demanded of patients, the longed-for visitors, and the lack of information that patients receive. It is also, of course, an ideal setting for a confrontation with death—and with the resulting concern about the life one has lived and the existence to follow.

Mano was a conservative Christian who wrote many novels within a religious framework. And I admire him for that. In fact, other novels of his might well interest me. But as a first novelist here, I believe he is too committed to exploring the role of religion in our world, instead of exploring how one man reacts to the role of religion in his particular life, the doubts he has, and how his beliefs conflict with the material world around him. Mano needed to address this directly, rather than through symbolic characters and metaphorical events. (September, 2018)