I’ve always have had a moderate interest in Stephen King, reading bits and pieces here and there, but have never been fully convinced of his talent until last year when I read The Shining for the first time, along with it’s “sequel” Doctor Sleep. It was a great reading experience, and despite a few quirky things about some of King’s prose and scenes that can bug me, I started to understand why he has such a legion of constant readers.
I think the thing that King is best at is creating a fully realized world that combines the mundane and believable with an everyman or everywoman facing an unbelievable situation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and oftentimes it is a mix.
His latest novel Mr. Mercedes has a great beginning premise. In the spring of 2009, when the country was in the throws of the financial meltdown, hundreds of job seekers are lining up in the cold predawn hours outside a job fair, hoping to find some sort of work to help them make it through the day. As they are waiting for morning to come and the doors to open, a Mercedes comes along and suddenly plows through the crowd, killing men, women, and children. Eight dead, fifteen wounded.
The scene is as horrifying as one could imagine. King spends time with the people in the line, particularly a young man who befriends a young woman and her young baby. The baby becomes a bit of a focal point, with people incensed that a woman would bring a baby out in such cold weather. But it drives home the desperation that the mother is facing: no money, no family, no friends to help out, and becomes a symbol of the desperation everyone in the line is facing. When the horror begins, the young woman and her baby do not make it out alive.
The story then picks up several months later with retired detective Bill Hodges, who wasn’t able to catch the Mercedes killer, and is in a struggle to find meaning after retirement, with thoughts of suicide crossing his mind often.
One day Brady Hartfield, the Mercedes killer, sends Bill Hodges a letter that flaunts and celebrates his murderous accomplishment. Brady invites Bill to a highly secure chat website called Debbie’s Blue Umbrella, in which he intends to manipulate Bill into a dialogue that he hopes will destroy the detective’s life. But the letter wakes Bill up from his lifeless days, and Brady gets more than he bargained for.
Essentially the rest of the novel is Bill re-opening the investigation, without approval of the police course, and goes down a road with a cast of characters, haphazardly discovering new evidence, all the while engaging and enraging Brady with a bit of digital cat-and-mouse game.
The novel starts strong, but for me, the long middle part feels loose and unfocused. Marketed as a crime thriller, this does have the occasional thrill, but it comes in predictable spurts, mostly the first 12 pages and the last 100 pages. But halfway through the novel, I almost put it down due to its lack of anything interesting going on storywise. Even the characters weren’t interesting enough to keep me going as the plot plodded along. But I decided to push through, simply for the sake of an experiment to be able to review the book as a whole and not a half.
There are a couple clues in the novel itself that I think shed light on it faults. The narrator when speaking of Brady’s writing activities says, “He learned in high school that thinking too long about writing doesn’t work for him. Too many other ideas get into his head and start sliding all over each other. It’s better to just fire away” (164).
I don’t think I could find a better description of a good chunk of this novel. It has the feeling of being “discovery written,” with not much planning ahead where the characters are headed and very little going back over to tighten up the story. Now whether that is the actual case or not is irrelevant, but about 250 pages of this story reads like it does. When it comes to crime fiction, usually the best stories can be quite intricately plotted, and matched perfectly with the characters’ history and motivations. For me, it’s usually this intricacy in crime fiction that can make it so satisfying, whether it’s Sherlock Holmes, a work of American noir, or even Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. As the Mercedes killer is about to engage in his final bloody plans, the narrator reveals about Brady, “He’s aware of what a crude and makeshift plan this is; the stupidest no-talent screenwriter in Hollywood could do better” (377). That’s certainly true in this case.
I also find it difficult to excuse such lazy characterization. A retired rogue detective: check. A psychopath bordering on the cartoonish: check. A spunky and apparently funny sidekick: check. There are actually two of those. Hell, there is even a sick and manipulative mother! I really don’t mind having stock characters in a crime story, just make them more interesting or different than what we’ve seen often enough, or put them in situations we’ve not grown immune too. There are interesting and entertaining ways to mess with clichés, but unfortunately it doesn’t happen in this story.
Despite these problems with the novel, there was something about it that did keep me reading. Part of it was the challenge to finish something I wasn’t enjoying, but by the last 100 pages, I was enjoying it more that I expected to. It was a real mix that didn’t really come together all that well, but I suppose well enough.
The thing is, King could do better, much better.