I’ve read the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption before, and the autobiographical memoir On Writing, but Mr Mercedes is the first Stephen King novel that I’ve read. It also happens to be his first exploration into the world of detective fiction, and so as I understand it is quite different from the majority of his other works.
Mr Mercedes is predominantly told from the perspective of two main characters, Brady Hartsfield and Bill Hodges. Brady Hartsfield is the ‘perk’ responsible for driving a Mercedes into a crowd of people waiting for a job fair (the opening scene in the novel), and Bill Hodges is a now-retired detective who was unable to solve the case and is being taunted online by the Mercedes-killer. With a couple of unlikely sidekicks, he gets drawn into investigating the case again (unofficially of course), and has to try to catch Brady before he commits another act of terrorism using a suicide bomb.
I wasn’t always mad keen on the writing in Mr Mercedes, it sometimes felt that it was just a bit too unsubtle. Stephen King’s very good at leaving little hints and clues about what Brady’s going to do next, which is great because it really builds a nervous tension, but then he’ll add a line which says what the plan is in clear black and white and that ruins it for me – lines like ‘He was going to poison the dog.’ I’d already worked out what he was intending by the hints saying Brady wanted to make Jerome suffer, his thoughts on the best way to buy poisons discreetly, and his general feelings towards the dog Odell. I knew he was planning to poison the dog, but I don’t need to be told it so bluntly. Stephen King always left enough tools for me as a reader to work things out by myself, but I don’t then need to be spoon-fed the information too. There’d be a greater level of suspense if I was left to discover if my suspicions were right all along, but I was robbed me of that.
Having said that, I did find the story itself to be really gripping. King’s definitely a master at building suspense, and the last third or so really left me feeling quite anxious. I like that he has no qualms about killing off important characters, it really kept me on my toes. I also like that he’s happy to lay a real sense of blame and responsibility at the detective’s door. Rather than portraying him as an out and out hero who failed to solve the crime through no fault of his own, we’re left in no doubt that Bill and his co-workers didn’t always ask the right questions, were quick to make assumptions and jump to conclusions, and belittled and dismissed a mentally troubled witness on the basis that they just didn’t like her (probably contributing to her suicide). I liked that Bill’s character was so far from being perfect, although it meant the novel did somewhat fall into the trope of crime solving becoming a means of gaining personal redemption.
There was still an awful lot about this book to enjoy though. I found the fact that some of Brady’s plans were pulled off and others backfired spectacularly to be really nerve-wracking, because it felt like there was always a real danger that Brady would triumph. This was especially true towards the end when Bill was having a heart attack while Brady was strapped to a bomb in the middle of a teen concert. In a way, part of me actually wanted Brady to succeed, just so the book would really break away from the standard ‘good triumphs over evil’ happy resolution of the genre. That didn’t happen, which in a way was kind of disappointing to me, but it always felt like there was a real possibility that it could happen, which was great for the reader. I do like to be kept on the edge of my seat! But of course Bill and his team won, and he survived his heart attack to boot, so it was smiles and happy endings all round. Well, until Brady woke up from his coma of course, which I did not like at all. It just seemed a bit too clichéd and predictable, and I think I’d rather the other books in the trilogy (Finders Keepers and End of Watch) dealt with a different antagonist completely. I loved, loved, loved the characters of Holly and Jerome though, so as long as they make an appearance in the next books I’m sure I’ll find them a more than bearable read.
In short, I found this to be a really great introduction to the novels of Stephen King. I’m not sure how representative it is compared to the rest of his body of work, but it’s clear that what he excels at is creating a really gripping plot and building the suspense throughout. I have a few more of his books waiting to be read, and I doubt it will be long before I pick them up. If they’re anywhere near as fast-paced and tense as Mr Mercedes, I’m sure I’ll lap them right up.