King of Crime: Part II — Hard Case Crime and Beyond
Next week — on March 2nd, 2021 to be specific — Hard Case Crime will publish their third Stephen King novel, Later. Although King is generally thought of as a horror writer, he has written numerous crime short stories, novellas and novels, giving them a unique twist. In Part 1 of this three-part series, I looked at King’s earliest involvement with crime fiction. This week, I’ll explore his more recent writings in the genre, including his previous two books with Hard Case Crime and the Mercedes series. Then, on publication day, I’ll review Later and look ahead to King’s next crime novel, Billy Summers.
In 2005, when founder and editor Charles Ardai asked King for a blurb to help promote his new noir imprint, Hard Case Crime (HCC), he did so knowing that King was fond of the genre. Instead of a blurb, King decided to write a book for them. By King’s own admission, The Colorado Kid wasn’t a perfect fit. It’s not noir, and the mystery of the man who shows up dead on the beach of one of Maine’s many coastal islands (a setting that reminded King of the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None) is unsolved. The two old men who run the island’s newspaper regale their comely summer intern with the story. Though they warn her (and, by proxy, readers) that the mystery has no explanation, some people were frustrated by the open ending. His earlier novel, From a Buick 8, similarly explores a mystery that has no rational explanation.
Several years later, King penned a whodunit for HCC. Whereas King described The Colorado Kid as “bleu,” Joyland is at least “gris” on the color scale. It is too cozy to be considered noir, where the world view is dour and pessimistic. The presence of a ghost and a young boy with precognitive powers is also not typical of the genre.
The murder that took place at the carnival where Dev Jones works in 1973 turns out to be part of a series of crimes. King said he wanted the mystery aspect to feel organic instead of like a prefab creation. Although there is a trail leading to the solution, readers who identified the killer in advance were doing better than him, he said. “I got near the end of the book before I realized who it was.”
In his essay “Why Cling to the Past?” Ardai wrote, “[Joyland] is about memory; it’s about the passage of time and its impact; it’s about ways of life that existed once and are gone now, ones that deserve not to be forgotten. It’s about all the things that led us to create Hard Case Crime in the first place.”
HCC is releasing a boxed set of their three King novels in September. It will feature an exclusive art card with alternate cover artwork for each of the three novels.
In early 2011, while he was driving from Florida to Maine, King stopped at a motel for the night and watched the news. One story was about a woman who attacked another in line at a job fair after catching her sleeping with her husband. The attack victim eluded her assailant, but the other woman subsequently drove her car into the crowd, backing over more people on her way out. King decided he wanted to write about the incident, although he didn’t know at the time how he would do so.
He came up with what he thought would be a 12-page story about a man who deliberately drives his car into a crowd of people, killing several. The detective assigned to the case ultimately retires without solving the crime. The perpetrator writes the detective a boastful and taunting letter several months later, saying he has no intention of committing another crime, so he’s unlikely to be caught. The killer intends for the cop to despair over his impotence and commit suicide, and that was how King planned to end the story. Instead, the cop is inspired to continue the investigation, and King ended up with a 500-page manuscript for Mr. Mercedes, a hardboiled detective novel with no supernatural elements.
There is a discernable trend in King’s two “crime series.” His Hard Case Crime novels begin with a book about a mystery that has never been solved, but there is only the mildest suggestion that the solution might rely on the supernatural. The men telling the story never indicate they think something impossible happened. In his second HCC novel, King delves a little farther into supernatural territory. And, as we’ll see next week, there’s no doubt that Later is a supernatural crime novel from the get-go.
So, too, with the Mercedes books. The first has nary a hint that anything otherworldly is involved, but at the end of Finder’s Keepers, readers discover that something weird might be happening. And with End of Watch, King once again goes all-in on the supernatural. This continues with the Holly Gibney follow-up novel The Outsider, where a group of no-nonsense legal minds are forced to confront an apparent impossibility: incontrovertible evidence that simultaneously proves the guilt and the innocence of the main suspect in a terrible crime. And, after dealing with the eponymous Outsider, Holly is contacted by someone else who understands that there are things beyond the known realm in the novella “If It Bleeds.”
In 2007, the Mystery Writers of America bestowed upon King the Grand Master Award, which represents the pinnacle of achievement in the mystery field. The press release referred to him as “the grand master of suspense,” calling him “the natural successor to Edgar Allan Poe,” the person for whom the MWA’s annual awards are named. Reed Farrel Coleman, Executive VP of the MWA, said, “King is that rare jack all trades who masters all he attempts. He is a fearless writer.”
In an interview with Parade magazine prior to the release of Joyland, Ken Tucker commented that the book, although it contained supernatural elements, wasn’t a horror novel. “I’ve been typed as a horror writer,” King replied, “But I never saw myself that way. I just saw myself as a novelist.”
So King is neither a horror writer nor a crime writer; rather, a writer exploring the nature of mysteries ranging from the mundane to the profound. “I ask you to consider the fact that we live in a web of mystery, and have simply gotten so used to the fact that we have crossed out the word and replaced it with one we like better, that one being reality,” he wrote. “It’s the beauty of the mystery that allows us to live sane as we pilot our fragile bodies through this demolition derby world.”
 The TV adaptation of the Mercedes novels is well worth seeking out. All three seasons are now available on NBC’s Peacock platform. HBO’s adaptation of The Outsider is also very good.