I wrote a rather lengthy Stephen King review not too long ago, and the literary world’s hardest-working retiree is coming out with another novel in, like, a MONTH. So I won’t go too much into “Mr. Mercedes.” It involves one of its author’s favoritest, most re-used tropes: THE HAUNTINGLY SIGNIFICANT KILLER VEHICLE.
Retired Detective Bill Hodges gets caught in a cat-and-mouse game with a crazy killer who rammed a Mercedes into a crowd of applicants at a job fair. (“Terrorism,” “unemployment” and “technological panic of the aging individual” are the ghosts in this earth-bound thriller.)
The blurb doesn’t sound promising, agreed. It’s King’s honest attempt at at a straight-ahead, race-against-time thriller of the kind Michael Connelly does so well. (Horror don’t sell like it used to.) But there are frequent detours and surprises in “Mr. Mercedes,” and though it is not without padding, the ending is a total nail-biter.
SOME SPOILER NOTES FOR THOSE WHO’VE ALREADY READ IT:
1- Bill Hodges doesn’t work psychologically as a retired detective. He’s out of touch with certain realities that the police has to deal with, from computer searches to street lingo. In fact, Hodges’ behavior is much closer to “retired mystery writer,” but it’s easy to understand why King wanted to stretch a different sweater here.
2- Jerome’s unlikely “game” of “Oh lawdy, I be a good slave, massa Hodges” had me going like: “Oh, Hell-to-the-No!” First of all, the average black teenager from 2011 isn’t as proficient with plantation lingo stereotypes as King imagines. Second of all, if Jerome did like to pretend to be a slave (WHY WOULD HE?!?), he wouldn’t be playing at it with an old white cop, no matter how buddy-buddy they were.
3- The character of Holly Gibney, who turns out to be so emotionally pivotal, is too much of a mess and added much too late to the story. King knows this, so he tries to flesh her out RIGHT AT THE WORST POSSIBLE TIME. The book is barreling to the end, our heroes are running to stop an explosion – and suddenly we go into a lengthy flashback to Holly’s teenage years? Couple of pages before the end? TOO LATE! NOBODY CARES! The only reaction is annoyance at the digression. It almost stops things on its tracks. Almost.
4-The “wrong person eats the poisoned food” twist worked so great here, that it took me a moment to recollect that King had already used it once, very memorably too, at the end of “Thinner” (which is considered minor in King’s canon, but totally enthralled me as a teen.)
5- Exciting as the ending was, King really handicapped himself by setting it in a crowded stadium during a boy- band concert. If Brady’s explosion had meant to hurt a mixed crowd of, say, a couple dozen people at another job fair, we would have been worried. But we know the bad guy isn’t going to get away with killing thousands of sweet girls, because King himself isn’t going to dare. The days of “Pet Sematary” are long gone.