Stephen King shows no signs of slowing down. Less than 12 months after the publication of the chilling DOCTOR SLEEP, he returns with MR. MERCEDES, which is very different from its immediate predecessor in subject and tone but stuffed to the brim with his trademark elements of high-octane suspense and unforgettable characters. It may not be King’s best book, but it contains some of his best writing to date. Here, he swerves away from supernatural elements with a story that literally could be ripped from last weekend’s headlines.
We meet Mr. Mercedes almost immediately. He is Brady Hartsfield, a 30-something who lives in his mother’s basement, at least when he isn’t curled up in her bed. On that subject, it would be inaccurate to say that Brady has never been kissed; he has, but even in the current wild west mentality that holds sway, little Brady might be regarded as strange. We meet him during an opening flashback while he is in the midst of performing what he regards as his greatest accomplishment. This involves running a stolen car through a group of optimistic souls lined up for a job fair in a medium-sized city that may or may not be Canton or Toledo, Ohio. He is able to escape following the ensuing carnage thanks to some stellar planning, a circumstance that frosts and later haunts Bill Hodges, the detective tasked with the investigation of the crime.
"Whether you have stuck with King since he was writing about outcast teenage girls, or haven’t picked up on what he is doing for a while, you should read MR. MERCEDES. You’ll be checking your automobile’s back seat for months, if not years."
Flash forward to the present. Hodges is brooding in retirement, losing the battle with his waistline and spending too much time watching television. He is brought out of his doldrums when he receives a crude, anonymous letter from Brady, who calls himself “the perk” and admits culpability in the mass murder. Brady says that Hodges will never catch him because he will never kill again, which, of course, is a lie. He has plans for another, more spectacular mass killing, one that he dreams of as he hides in plain sight while working two jobs. He invites Hodges to join him on an Internet meetup site for a conversation. Hodges is at best technologically challenged, but with the assistance of a young mentor, he is able to at least grasp the ability to communicate back and forth with Brady. Hodges may be older than his nemesis, but he still plays Brady like a Stradivarius, poking him and egging him on in the hope that he will reveal himself.
In the meantime, Hodges utilizes a number of contacts as he conducts an unofficial investigation on his own, all too aware that Brady, the “perk,” is somehow observing him and making him a target as well. Aided by a very mismatched pair of associates --- one introduced in the book early on, the other not appearing until relatively late --- Hodges must determine not only the identity of the “perk,” but also what he is going to do.
MR. MERCEDES is a long book that doesn’t feel like one. King’s pacing is perfect here, and he (almost) never wanders down side avenues of his own that occasionally have been distractions in some of his prior books. The plotline contains any number of situations that will make you give pause when you encounter certain things in your normal everyday world, such as big box stores, job fairs, stadium events of any sort, and, most of all, ice cream trucks. King does for the Good Humor man what he did for clowns, bridges, nurses of a certain age and size, and resort hotels in the middle of nowhere.
Whether you have stuck with King since he was writing about outcast teenage girls, or haven’t picked up on what he is doing for a while, you should read MR. MERCEDES. You’ll be checking your automobile’s back seat for months, if not years.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 6, 2014