Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes is not a conventional horror novel. No ghosts, no vampires, no prune-faced escapees of the graveyard. The book's protagonist is a retired police detective named Bill Hodges. Hodges is a denizen of a Midwestern city that feels something like Detroit, the sort of place that's been ravaged by industry and left to fend for itself. He's haunted by an unsolved case, the mass murder of eight people, run down by a stolen Mercedes outside of a job fair in the early hours of a chilly April morning, and when we meet him, he's watching a Jerry Springer-esque talk show and giving serious contemplation to shooting himself in the head.
"Now everything had turned to shit," thinks an out-of-work data processor with the splendid name of Augie Odenkirk, standing in line outside the job fair. He seems more baffled than angry as his thoughts continue: "They had done something to the money." Later, Augie is compelled to recall The Grapes of Wrath – but all his reveries end a few pages later. Poor Augie is one of the victims, crushed beneath the wheels of a beautiful car.
No, Mr. Mercedes is probably not the first King novel to come to many minds, but with the Brendan Gleeson-starring series premiering next week, it's my (admittedly biased; I do know King a little) opinion that an early re-evaluation is in order. That's because Mr. Mercedes is a story for our moment.
"They had done something to the money." Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, Goldman Sachs – those guys are the ones who did it, although it's hard to understand exactly what it was, because there was never a trial and no one went to jail and what do you know, the numbers are jumping around again, like lottery balls in a hopper.
"People are really happy with record high stock market – up over 17% since election!" Donald Trump recently tweeted.
You have to suppose that Augie Odenkirk, if he were around to hear this news, might be a tad skeptical. After all, stock-market highs are well and good, but it's more than six months into the Trump administration and the manufacturing jobs that Mr. Winning promised on the campaign trail have yet to come magically pouring back into the American bottle. The stock market is for people who live in Manhattan and summer in the Hamptons, for people who can afford fancy cars – a Mercedes, say.
People such as Augie get up before dawn to stand in line at job fairs. Other people, such as retired detective Hodges, sit in their armchairs and contemplate the circus on television and find the prospect of eternity rather tempting.
If any of that hits close to home, that's just the half of it.
There's also Mr. Mercedes himself, Brady Hartsfeld. Brady is a particularly modern villain, a mischief-maker with a keyboard who gets his lulz by turning people's machines against them. (He refers to a pair of his favourite hacking tools as Thing One and Thing Two.)
Brady is no longer satisfied with getting away with mass murder. Now he wants to drive Hodges all the way over the edge, sending untraceable messages to torment him until he gives in to temptation and pulls that trigger. In a hilariously nasty bit of stage-setting by King, we discover that Brady literally operates out of his mother's basement. In fact, in case you're not getting the picture yet, I'll be clear: The whole novel is rather nasty.
So is 2017. So was 2016. So was 2015. Keep flipping the calendar backward; it's been ugly and it's getting uglier.
Something has been happening to the money. Incapacitating depression is hard to resist and, in light of current events, entirely understandable. Who wouldn't be depressed, living in a society that can't agree on reality, let alone health-care policy? The Internet has crammed us all into the back seat of the car and we are never, ever going to be allowed to get out and stretch our legs and use the bathroom. Get comfortable with your brother and your sister, folks.
Like the book it's based on, Hulu's adaptation of Mr. Mercedes is stinging. Gleeson is cranky enough to bite as Hodges and Harry Treadaway's Brady is just human enough to be terrifying. But if you can take a little time, the novel is worth a look, too, if you have the stomach for it.
Owen King's books include Double Feature. His novel Sleeping Beauties, co-written with Stephen King, will be published in September. They will be appearing on Oct. 5 at Toronto's Koerner Hall, their only Canadian appearance.