Ah, Stephen King. He’s been my number one go-to author since I was in my early teens and read It and The Tommyknockers. I pretty much never looked back from that point on and while not every book he publishes is a slam dunk (Dreamcatcher is one of the most jawdroppingly terrible things, and I never even bothered to finish Lisey’s Story I was so bored and annoyed by it), when you’re as prolific as King is, that’s no real surprise. But I’d still much rather read an off target Stephen King novel than the best work of some other authors.
Luckily for all of us, Mr Mercedes is very far from an off-target book. It’s funny how King is so often written of as a horror novelist and when he is so much more. Here he delivers an out and out thriller, something the publishers are so keen to publicise, the front cover of the novel tells you that it’s “a riveting suspense thriller”. Bill Hodges is a retired cop, and is still haunted by the one unsolved case he had when he retired. A crazy person stole a Mercedes and drove it in to a crowd of people. Eight died, fifteen were injured, the killer never apprehended. Said killer is Brady Hartsfield, who lives across town from Hodges and decides he’s going to tie up the one loose end he has and goad Hodges into killing himself. He writes to Hodges and suggests they start chatting on a social website, Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella (hence the cover). But both the cat and the mouse have underestimated each other and events threaten to overtake both of them. Soon Hodges, along with two unexpected and unlikely sidekicks, is in a race against time to stop Hartsfield before he can kill again.
Alfred Hitchcock discussed the art of suspense and he said (I’m massively paraphrasing): “show two men talking at a table for 10 minutes, and then detonate a bomb under the table, the audience are first bored then shocked. Show the audience the bomb first, THEN show the men talking, and for ten minutes, that audience will be losing their minds, waiting for the men to be blown up or saved”. King takes that lesson and runs with it here. The first half of Mr Mercedes is all set up. King takes time fleshing out his characters and making you care about (or in the case of Hartsfield, massively dislike and be creeped out by) them. Around the halfway mark, things begin to unravel in ways you don’t initially expect and that’s when you need to make sure you’ve cleared your diary and you should turn your phone off. You won’t want to stop until you get to the very end.
The last 200 pages are easily among the most exciting and pulse racing I have read in a very long time. I have dinged King in the past for being too fond of a happy ending (Cell is the worst offender there, I think), but not only do you want this all to end well for Hodges and his buddies, King genuinely made me fear about whether it would or not. Much like Hartsfield in the Mercedes at the start, King has disabled the airbags on his narrative. There was a time, following King’s near death experience, when it looked like he might never write again and that what he did write would be inferior stuff (Bag of Bones was the first book to emerge after that brush with death and it’s really not one of his best). How wrong we all were. It’s now been fifteen years since that event, and in that time King has published some of his finest work. He shows no signs of slowing down and indeed I was thrilled to discover Mr Mercedes is actually book one of a planned trilogy and part two should be out next year. Get in.