During his long (40 years), successful, and prolific (more than 50 books) career, Stephen King deservedly became known as The Master of Horror. As one who has read just about everything he has written, I can attest to being spellbound by Carrie White’s revenge, terrified by the events at the Overlook Hotel, and convinced that vampires are real because of what happened in the small town of ’Salem’s Lot. I also bought into the idea that pets can return from the dead, and I’ve never looked at any clown the same way after having met Pennywise. I could go on, but you get the idea.
In his new novel titled, “Mr. Mercedes,” however, the horrormeister forsakes the genre that made him a household word and delivers a consistently entertaining mystery about a retired police officer taunted by a psychopathic mass murderer. In addition to being a typical King page-turner, this novel also introduces some of the most likeable characters (with one exception) King has ever created.
Set in an unnamed town, the story begins in the early morning hours when a huge throng of people has gathered at the City Center for a Job Fair. As the people are waiting for the doors to open, a Mercedes 12-cylinder sedan suddenly appears and heads directly toward the crowd. Much to the horror of the job seekers the car accelerates right into their midst, killing eight and injuring 15. The car then speeds away, and during the ensuing investigation, the police come up empty.
One of the officers working the case is a detective named Bill Hodges, a 40-year veteran who recently retired and who was so devastated by not capturing the Mercedes killer that he spends his days watching meaningless daytime TV shows, drinking beer, and contemplating suicide. Bill definitely is on the brink of ending it all until six months after his retirement he receives a thick letter in the mail, and much to his shock, it is from the murderer. The epistle is filled with taunting sarcasm, and after reading only a few lines, Hodges knows he’s dealing with a complete nut. Here’s a sample as the writer describes the feeling when the car ran over the bodies.
“I still relive the thuds that resulted from hitting them, and the crunching noises, and the way the car bounced on its springs when it went over the bodies. For power and control, give me A Mercedes 12-cylinder every time! When I saw in the paper that a baby was one of the victims, I was delighted!!! To snuff out a life that young! Think of all she missed, eh? Patricia Gray, RIP! Got the mom, too! Strawberry jam in a sleeping bag! What a thrill, eh? I also enjoy thinking of the man who lost his arm and even more of the two who are paralyzed. The man only from the waist down, but Martine Stover is now your basic ‘head on a stick!’ They didn’t die but probably wish they did. How about that, Detective Hodges?”
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The wacko who wrote the letter is Brady Hartfield. He still lives at home with his alcoholic mother, and she, like her son, is about four sandwiches shy of a picnic. To call their relationship perverted is a gross understatement, and Brady is one of the most sadistic killers you have ever encountered. His sarcastic letter to Hodges gives the retired detective a reason to live, and most of the book is a tense game of cat and mouse between the two of them, culminating in a fast-paced and thrilling conclusion that will have you ripping through the final 100 pages.
Despite being retired, Hodges launches his own re-investigation of the case. The Mercedes used as the murder weapon belonged to a wealthy older widow named Olivia Trelawney, and one of the major mysteries is how the killer gained access to her car. Olivia ultimately becomes so distraught over the incident that she kills herself, and her death allows King to introduce Janelle (Janey) Patterson, Olivia’s beautiful sister, who wants to learn the killer’s identity.
As the story proceeds, Janey and two others join Hodges in his investigation. The first is Jerome Robinson, a brilliant African American teenager who does yard work for Hodges and also troubleshoots his computer for him. The ogther is Janey’s niece Holly, a middle-aged woman with severe mental issues who turns out to be one of the best characters in the book.
Hodges and his unlikely team of investigators soon find themselves involved in a very dangerous search for Hartsfield, who on the surface seems incapable of such a heinous act as driving a speeding car into a crowd of people. He holds down a good job at an electronics store, and when he’s not working there, he’s dispensing treats to neighborhood children from an ice cream truck.
In his typical fashion, King turns up the tension throughout the story, slowly and steadily until your knuckles will turn white as you fly through the final pages. There’s no doubt King is the true master of the horror novel, but with “Mr. Mercedes” he proves he’s also quite adept and writing a damn good detective thriller. The word is that a film based upon the book already is in works, and if Hollywood does it right, it could be a dandy.
Even if horror is not your thing, I highly recommend “Mr. Mercedes” as a good summer read. It would be a great choice to take with you on vacation or just out on your porch or deck. I will add one note of caution, however. Never again will you look at a Mercedes in quite the same way.