Even before you crack the spine, there is something refreshing about Mr. Mercedes, the new novel from American horror master Stephen King. For the first time in what seems like ages – certainly in the last couple of years – it's a King novel arriving on the publishing scene without much in the way of fanfare.
Of course, hype is relative, and this is a new Stephen King novel, after all, so it's not as if it's slipped into bookstores without notice. Yes, we knew there was a new King coming (but then, there's always a new King coming, and I shudder at the idea of a dark day in the future when that isn't true), but the arrival of Mr. Mercedes has seen nothing like the wall-to-wall coverage that greeted the publication, last year, first in June of Joyland (King's non-e-book gesture, about a haunted amusement park), then, in September, Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, which it felt like we'd been talking about for years by the time anyone had a chance to read it.
And before anyone points it out, yes, I participated, quite willingly, in all of that coverage. Perhaps that's why, with Mr. Mercedes, I decided to go the other way.
A month ago, all I knew about the novel was that it was just that, a novel. I knew the title and the publication date, and that was it.
I decided to keep it that way. After last year's hype and pre-judgement, I wanted to seize the opportunity to come to a King novel completely uninformed. The first thing I did, upon receiving my copy, was to remove the dust-jacket and tuck it away, unread.
When was the last time you read a Stephen King novel you knew nothing about? As an experience, I highly recommend it.
It helps that Mr. Mercedes is a fine example of both King's imagination and his craft, with realistically drawn characters, a fast-paced, compelling narrative and keen insight into the darkness within us. And it doesn't fall apart at the end, the way King's novels often do.
You'll note, I've not actually said anything about what the book is about: that's by design. If you're inclined to participate in this experiment, do it now, before the book starts to gain momentum, and every newspaper and magazine has a review that can't help but fill you in on Mr. Mercedes's subject matter. Do it now, before you read the second half of this review. You can always come back.
Even putting aside the willful lack of foreknowledge, Mr. Mercedes is one of the most surprising King novels in years. For starters, it's not a horror novel, at all. Rather, it's a tightly constructed thriller, drawing on conventions of the detective novel while not being bound by them. Second, there are no supernatural elements to it whatsoever: its terrors, its darkness, are human in both nature and scale. Finally, uniquely, it's an "older" book: where most of King's oeuvre either explores childhood and youth or sees its characters in a nebulous, vague adulthood, Mr. Mercedes places the reader into the early stages of retirement.
And that retirement is not sitting well for retired police detective Bill Hodges, who spends his suddenly free time watching bad daytime television and trying to build up the courage to put his own gun in his mouth and pull the trigger. Divorced, and estranged from his daughter, Hodges gets a new lease on life when he receives a rambling, threatening letter from a man claiming to be The Mercedes Killer, who, driving a stolen car, crashed deliberately into the crowd awaiting the opening of an employment fair, killing eight people.
The Mercedes Murders was one of Hodges's last cases, left unsolved when he retired. Now, with the killer threatening to strike again, it is (of course) up to Hodges to stop him.
But King is playing both sides of the coin. The Mercedes Killer, Brady Hartfield, is toying with Hodges. It's not enough for him to kill again: this time, with the retired detective, it will be personal. He knows about Hodges's retirement, his thoughts of suicide, the depressing nature of his days: he's seen it all, as he drives around the neighbourhood in the ice-cream truck, taking notes and making plans.
From the moment of Hartfield's introduction, King begins to slowly, inexorably ratchet up the tension. As a villain, Hartfield is one of King's great creations, twisted and deranged, but cringingly human, and with mommy issues straight out of a keen misunderstanding of Freud.
He is also fallible, avoiding the trope of the all-powerful antagonist that hamstrings so many disappointing thrillers. Both Hodges and Hartfield make their share of mistakes and suffer from their misjudgements. By the end of the novel, the stakes might be high, but the scale is small: two men, each flawed in their own way, each struggling with themselves, locked into battle with one another, accepting the possibility that neither of them may survive.
It's a pleasure to read. Mr. Mercedes is a crisp, compulsive thrill ride, the sort of book tailor-made for a summer weekend.
Keep a close eye, though, on the ice-cream man.
Robert J. Wiersema's new novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.