Stephen King’s newest is more noir than horror
Each time Stephen King is interviewed, he finds himself responding to the same question: “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually, the question is prompted by the questioner implying that an author who writes about serial killers and psychotics must be as twisted and devious as the subjects that he writes about. King always responds with some variation of the following: His ideas come from Fox News and CNN; the New York Times and Time magazine.
In other words, his ideas are drawn from current events. King has been affected by the tragedies at Sandy Hook and Columbine. He has listened to Nancy Grace’s rants and has pondered the guilt of O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony. In the process, he has acquired and astonishing knowledge of crime in America, especially brutal crimes committed by a lone perpetrator.
Recently, King wrote a series of articles and stories for the New York Times in which he discussed his own work and the possibility that he has unwittingly influenced unstable teenagers to act out their fantasies. In fact, King has withdrawn one of his books from publication because he feels that there is a possibility that the book might “foster violence,” possibly another school shooting. Because he is mindful of his possible influence, he has become a kind of monitor of violence in America.
In the final analysis, King reads and weighs the news. His curiosity is prompted by a singular question: why?
The unthinkable crime at the heart of Mr. Mercedes was probably inspired by a tragic accident in which an elderly driver, George Russell Weller, drove his 1992 Buick LeSabre into a crowd of shoppers at a farmer’s market in Santa Monica, Calif., on July 16, 2003. The accident left 10 dead and 60 injured. Although the court ruled the incident an accident, numerous witnesses testified to something more sinister. Weller never applied the brakes and yelled insults at his victims throughout the incident. Later investigation revealed that Weller had been in a similar “accident” several years prior to the Santa Monica fatalities. Could it be that George Russell Weller was a murderer?
Now, this is the kind of incident that attracts Steven King’s interest.
The setting of Mr. Mercedes is an unnamed city in the Midwest, one large enough to have a major civic center (seating for 4,000 people). In addition, the city has the traditional problems of a large city: crime, poverty and unemployment. It is the latter problem that creates the setting of “murder by vehicle.” Some 2,000 unemployed citizens gather in a large municipal parking lot in response to a large banner: “1000 JOBS GUARANTEED!” The job recruitment is real and the huddled unemployed are waiting, many in sleeping bags, for the interviews to begin. Then, someone notices the Mercedes at the entrance to the parking lot. Behind the steering wheel is a 28-year-old psychopath named Brady Hartfield, his face hidden in a yellow clown’s mask. Then, Brady steps on the gas and speeds into the crowd, taking delight in feeling the tires roll over bodies. Tomorrow, the newspapers will call him “The Mercedes Killer.”
Mr. Mercedes has two major characters who are antagonists. One is the warped killer who has two jobs: he works for a computer repair business called the Electronic Cyber Patrol (which repairs computers in the customers’ homes); and each afternoon, Brady drives the Mr. Tastey Ice Cream truck. The second character is a retired, suicidal detective named Kermit William Hodges. Divorced, estranged from his daughter and living alone, Hodges spends most afternoons watching television and drinking. Since retiring from the force, Hodges has become overweight and deeply depressed. He keeps his old service pistol nearby as we watches television. The mindless chatter of the TV contributes to his depression. Occasionally, Hodge thinks that the dismal programming on his TV will finally give him the courage to pick up the gun and shoot himself.
Gradually, we learn that Detective Hodges is somewhat famous. He investigated and solved hundreds of cases, and now he yearns for his old life. Ironically, the killer who knows about the honors that the retired detective has won decides to offer Hodges a challenge. He initiates a correspondence with Hodges, inviting him to join him in a private “chat room” where he plans to taunt Hodges, telling him that he knows about his boring life and the gun that he keeps by his side. He offers clues to his identity and makes veiled references to his next crime ... a massacre that will claim hundreds of lives ... maybe more. “Come on, Loser!” he taunts Kermit Hodge. “Talk to me.”
Det. Hodges responds, and as he reads the killer’s arrogant insults (in a chat room called “Under the Blue Umbrella”), he finds himself filled with a rage that prompts him to come out of retirement. Gradually, the 62-year-old detective begins to perform, opening a file, keeping notes, and doing research. Although he is no longer authorized to investigate crimes, Hodges cannot resist the temptation to nail Mr. Mercedes. Hodges goes on a diet and begins to walk around his neighborhood where he often hears the Mr. Tastey Ice Cream truck.
King has abandoned spooks and the supernatural for the traditional hard-boiled detective/noir tale and he handles it well. Mr. Mercedes moves at a brisk pace and the tension mounts. In short order, we learn that the killer not only lives with his mother ... he sleeps with her. He is haunted by the murder of his brother and he is filled with a hatred for ... well, everyone. He fantasizes about orchestrating mass killings and he spends each night designing bombs and explosives. Brady feels a sense of urgency and suspects that he will initiate his final devastating act soon. He is fascinated by the civic center that sponsors concerts and seats 4,000 people, and it is gearing up for a teeny-bopper performance that has sold out.
As Hodge becomes immersed in his hunt for Mr. Mercedes, his life changes. In addition to losing weight, he stops drinking and confides in a young African-American, who becomes his assistant. Most surprising of all, romance enters his life in a most unique fashion. Following the massacre in the parking lot, the owner of the Mercedes becomes unstable and guilt-ridden about the fact that her car (with the keys in the ignition) was turned into a murder weapon. She begins to receive sinister messages from Brady, who torments her until she commits suicide. It is at this point — while he is investigating the suicide — that he meets the deceased woman’s sister, Janelle, and for whatever reason, some kind of sparks fly. Hodges has found yet another reason to lose weight
Hodge thought his life was over, but suddenly he is involved in a passionate love affair. The pursuit of Mr. Mercedes will radically changed Det. Hodge’s life. Suddenly, the old detective has two delightful (and unconventional) friends who assist with his search for Mr. Mercedes, but before his investigation is over, Det. Hodge will suffer both a heartbreak and a nearly fatal stroke. This book has a non-stop “thriller” conclusion ... one that may require the reader to read the last 100 pages at a single sitting. Enjoy!