Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King
by Robert A. Parker
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)