NFTDZ REVIEW: MR. MERCEDES
By Bev Vincent
In early 2011, en route from Florida to Maine, Stephen King watched the evening news in his roadside hotel. One item was about a woman who had an altercation with another in line at a job fair. The attacker got into her car and drove it into the crowd. King decided that he wanted to write about the incident, although he didn’t know how at the time.
He came up with what he thought would be a short story about a psychopath who deliberately runs his car into a crowd of people. After the detective handling the case retires, the perpetrator writes him a taunting letter, bragging about how much he enjoyed killing and maiming all those people. He won’t get caught, he states, because he doesn’t plan to do it again. The cop should just give up and eat his gun. The idea blossomed into a 450-page novel, King’s first foray into straight crime fiction at book length, although he has written a number of non-supernatural crime short stories in the past.
Mr. Mercedes opens with the attack at the job fair. In a dozen pages, King introduces us to a few characters, makes us grow fond of them as only he can, and then throws the 12-cylinder Mercedes into the fray, ripping apart everything he so carefully constructed.
Det.-Ret. Bill Hodges has been sitting at home for six months, watching afternoon reality TV shows and toying with the idea of killing himself. When he retired, he left behind a number of open/unsolved cases, including a serial killer and a Scott Peterson-style missing wife, so he isn’t obsessing over the so-called Mercedes Killer in particular. If the perpetrator had left well enough alone—if he hadn’t decided to poke Hodges with a sharp stick—then his reign of terror might have continued unchecked, culminating in his magnum opus, the incident that forms the book’s climax.
Brady Hartfield is beginning to think he’s invincible. When he plunged the car into the crowd, he thought there was a very good chance he’d be caught, perhaps even ripped to shreds by witnesses, and was okay with that. The fact that he got away has emboldened him. He tells Hodges in his carefully crafted letter that he has no intention of repeating his crime, that he’s content to relive it in his mind, but Hodges knows better. He’s caught many “perks” like his unknown interlocutor, and he has an idea that the Mercedes Killer will strike again.
The poison pen letter was meant to goad Hodges into killing himself, but it has the opposite effect: it spurs him into action. Rather than turning the letter over to his former partner in the police department of this unnamed, economically depressed Mid-West city (the same one that was the setting for Rose Madder?), Hodges opens his own file on the Mercedes Killer and embarks on an off-the-books investigation.
Aiding Hodges is Jerome, the computer-savvy, Ivy League bound teenager who mows his lawn. The Mercedes Killer offers to communicate with Hodges via an anonymous website called Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella (hence the book’s cover image) but Hodges is afraid to use his own computer in case he inadvertently gives the killer access to his hard drive. Once the connection is established, it doesn’t take him long to get under his adversary’s skin. He knows it doesn’t take much to trip up a killer: Son of Sam was caught thanks to a parking ticket.
Thus ensues a cat and mouse game, though it’s often not clear who is pursuing whom. Hartfield is young, brash, profane, bigoted, and mostly lacking in conscience. He still lives with his alcoholic mother—his father died in a work-related accident—and his relationship with her makes Norman Bates look well-adjusted. His younger brother died under mysterious circumstances. He works two jobs that provide him with access to his targets without raising suspicions. In his basement he has a rank of computers and a sophisticated voice-activated security system to prevent his secrets from falling into the wrong hands. Ominously, he also has a cache of homemade plastic explosives.
The book’s contemporary action is told in the present tense, something King doesn’t often use. Past tense is reserved for flashbacks distributed throughout the book. Though the prose is generally straightforward, Mr. Mercedes has some very nice turns of phrase. He describes a room “as big as a politician’s promises” and a warehouse yard “filled with empty boxes that stood around like Easter Island monoliths.”
Hodges is an unlikely hero. He put in his forty years with the police, but in the process he lost his wife to divorce and has an adult daughter who calls dutifully once a week but whom he hasn’t seen in two years. He’s grossly overweight—a heart attack waiting to happen, assuming he doesn’t shoot himself with his father’s gun first. When he was on the job, though, he had one of the best records in the department, and he’s still near the top of his game when he sets his sights on the Mercedes Killer. He’s an everyman, eminently likeable. Someone readers can root for. He’s so desperate for something to keep himself from spiraling into depression and despair, though, that he makes a few questionable choices, paramount among them his decision to keep his investigation a secret from his former colleagues. Hartfield may have poked him with a stick, but he pokes back twice as hard, and goading a killer who revels in inflicting maximum harm to maximum people isn’t a good idea.
Hodges begins to question the way he and his partner treated Olivia Trelawney, the owner of the Mercedes SL that Hartfield drove into the crowd. She became collateral damage because they suspected she left her key in the ignition, thus providing the killer with his weapon. She was pilloried in the press and questioned mercilessly and repeatedly by Hodges and his partner. Eventually she overdosed on Oxy. However, Hodges now wonders if the killer somehow played a part in her death. Once he starts digging around, he learns things about Trelawney that didn’t turn up during the initial investigation. He also becomes involved with other members of Trelawney’s family, including her vivacious sister Janey, who inherited the substantial estate—much to the strident dismay of other relatives—and cousin Holly (“the Mumbler”), a fortysomething with emotional problems who acts like a teenager but who comes alive once she meets Hodges.
Though Hodges is the book’s protagonist, and it features several other engaging and lovable characters, Mr. Mercedes’ biggest accomplishment is the title character, Brady Hartfield, one of the most twisted villains in King’s oeuvre. King doesn’t hide the identity of the madman from readers, so this isn’t a whodunit. Hodges doesn’t know who the Mercedes Killer is until late in the proceedings, but readers see Hartfield going about his daily life, pretending to be human. He doesn’t have friends, but he can be friendly, in a Dexter Morgan kind of way. His mother loves him (maybe a little too much!) and he’s able to hold down jobs. His head is full of crazy thoughts, and it’s fortunate that he only acts on a fraction of them. King doesn’t make him the least bit sympathetic or likeable. There’s a tragic backstory, of course, but make no mistake about it: Hartfield is a human monster. He schemes to make Hodges’ life miserable by targeting those around him, but his plans don’t always work as intended. His first gambit goes tragically wrong for him, and his second has significant implications for Hodges, making him question his decision to take on a madman solo.
Once things kick into high gear and Hartfield starts planning his end game, the suspense never lets up. For a while, Hodges and his ragtag gang of helpers are so far off the mark that it seems like Hartfield might go completely unchallenged in his last hurrah, but the pieces start to fall into place, culminating in a tense and nerve-wracking finale.
Since Mr. Mercedes takes place in the “real world,” Keystone Earth if you will, the place where time runs in only one direction and there are no do-overs, you shouldn’t expect any significant crossovers to King’s other books. The Crimson King isn’t behind Brady Hartfield’s actions, and there’s no grand cosmic plan. The stakes are simple human lives. However, that doesn’t mean there are no nods to familiar King tropes. Christine is mentioned, as is Pennywise, but the references are to the fictional versions of them—the movie about the haunted car and the insane clown from that TV movie. In other words, they are referenced in the same way we would mention them: as popular fiction icons that come to mind in certain situations.