Stephen King’s compulsively readable new thriller: Mr Mercedes
On the face of it this is a conventional thriller – but it stares dead-eyed into the heart of darkness
Stephen King: steeped in thriller lore. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty
Hodder & Stoughton
Best known for his novels of horror and the supernatural, Stephen King has over the years written a number of crime and mystery novels, including Misery (1987) – in which an author named Paul Sheldon abandons his Victorian romances to write a crime novel – Dolores Claiborne (1992) and The Colorado Kid (2005).
The title of his latest book brings to mind King’s fascination with haunted cars, but that’s as close to the supernatural tropes as Mr Mercedes gets. Pitched as a suspense thriller, it opens with an eye-witness account of a mass murder, when a stolen Mercedes is driven at high speed into a crowd of people standing outside an auditorium. Eight people are killed, 15 are wounded, and the perpetrator gets away.
Months later a recently retired police detective, Bill Hodges, receives a taunting letter signed by the “Mercedes Killer”. Hodges knows he should turn the letter over to his former partner Pete Huntley, but Hodges is divorced, lonely and purposeless. He has, on occasion, put a .38 revolver in his mouth, “just to see what it feels like to have a loaded gun lying on your tongue and pointing at your palate. Getting used to it, he supposes.”
Newly energised, Hodges decides to pursue the investigation alone, at least until he can be sure the letter isn’t a hoax. At this point King opens up the second of the parallel narratives that sustain the story, introducing Brady Hartsfield, a computer repairman and ice-cream van driver who is the self-styled Mercedes Killer. A sociopath, Hartsfield harbours a dark ambition to make his mark on American history by emulating, and perhaps exceeding, some of the worst mass murders of recent times.
Deranged killerOn the face of it this is a conventional set-up: the cop with nothing left to lose pursuing a deranged serial killer as the clock ticks down to an explosive climax. Mr Mercedes is a more knowing, self-aware thriller than the broad strokes might suggest, however, as the host of quirky references to the genre’s greats – Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Joseph Wambaugh and Edgar Allan Poe – suggests.
Meanwhile, the strongest influence on Mr Mercedes goes unmentioned. King has cited John D MacDonald as one of the three writers who most influenced him as an aspiring novelist – the others were Don Robertson and Richard Matheson – and Bill Hodges is a similar character to MacDonald’s series protagonist Travis McGee, who was neither a policeman nor a private detective.
“Philip Marlowe you ain’t,” Hodges tells himself, referencing Chandler’s iconic gumshoe. He’s right. Bill Hodges is neither cop nor private eye but something intriguingly in between, a man with a detective’s skills but no legal basis on which to act in order to prevent mass murder.
Hartsfield, for his part, is a fascinating variation on the genre’s stereotypical serial killer, the man – and it’s almost always a man – who is as ridiculously well resourced as he is intelligent. By contrast Hartsfield is all the more plausible and dangerous for the unpredictability of his animal cunning, as he is constantly forced to recalibrate his scheme because of a lack of foresight and financial wherewithal.
Told in a folksy, conversational style, Mr Mercedes is on one level a thoroughly enjoyable homage to the crime/thriller genre from an author who is obviously steeped in its lore. On another level the novel stares dead-eyed into the heart of darkness and explores the social and psychological factors that created the monster Brady Hartsfield. Supernatural tropes may be at a premium, but there is plenty of horror and evil to be found here. The evil is of the chillingly banal variety, the all-too-familiar desire to triumph over impotent anonymity through infamy and notoriety. The horror emerges via Hartsfield’s entirely logical thought processes, and his ability to blend, chameleon-like, into the society and culture he professes to despise.
Good and evilThere is good too, of course, as represented by Bill Hodges and the motley band of volunteer helpers – amateurs all – he assembles around him. In the grand scheme, however, or at least as far as Brady Hartsfield is concerned, good and evil are equally irrelevant: “He muses on the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Centre (he muses on them often). Those clowns actually thought they were going to paradise . . . ”
Brady is operating under no such illusions: “Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion . . . The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.”
It’s a downbeat and occasionally unsettling tale. As with all great thrillers, it’s also compulsively readable and hugely entertaining.