Those of you paying attention will notice that for the first time in 13 weeks I missed a TBT. I don’t even have a good excuse: I was just super tired and couldn’t think of anything good to write about. Although, the reason for my tired state was because I had been staying up too late to get to the end of my sixth (I think) book of the year: Mr Mercedes by Stephen King. Regular readers will know that I’ve been burnt by King before so I went in with limited expectations, which, considering the hype when it came out, was fucking difficult. With the second book in the Bill Hodge’s trilogy coming out next month, I had to find out if I’d be making another purchase or carrying on with my mission to decrease the number of unread books on my shelf.
Stephen King described Mr Mercedes as his first real attempt at a hard-boiled detective novel. As such there are several tongue-in-cheek references and in-jokes that relate to the traditions of the genre. The narrative contains all the hallmarks necessary for a successful study of the hard-boiled tradition. At one point the novel’s hero is even presented with the staple of every private dick’s wardrobe; a fedora. But this is a thoroughly modern tale. In 2009 a group of desperate job-seekers queues up outside a job fair before a Mercedes SL500 emerges from the fog and speeds through the crowd. The image hits the readers almost as hard as the car does its victims. It’s a bloody great metaphor for the recent social climate: a luxury vehicle crushing the people that the recession had left battered and bruised. As a reader, you are instantly hooked; just whose side is the killer on and what are his motivations for killing the city’s impoverished?
Although, Mr Mercedes isn’t actually a whodunnit as we are quickly introduced to the killer, Brady Hartfield, as he begins toying with the detective who failed to capture him. That detective is Bill Hodges; a recently retired police officer who has found it difficult to settle into retired life and spends his days watching shitty TV and flirting with suicide. A letter from Hartfield to Hodges invigorates the retiree to get off his couch and track the motherfucker down. Even if a huge part of me wishes that it hadn’t. After such a promising opening that hinted at an entertaining and realistic thriller, Mr Mercedes is a pretty damp squib. The novel has problems with pace as King’s prose is bogged down with pop-culture references and overlong explanations. What started out as a short story full of potential became more bloated than your lactose-intolerant cousin at an ice-cream parlour. I won’t lie, I wanted to keep reading Mr Mercedes but I was super-bored for most of it. And what was with his decision to write it in the fucking present tense?
The problem is that King’s novel just isn’t that thrilling. The socio-economic motivations suggested by the opening are all but forgotten and tension has been passed over in favour of psychological exploration. Considering the novel is essentially a two-hander, neither of the main characters is that interesting or original. King has copy and pasted characters from other works but his printer was clearly running low on ink. As gruff detectives go, Bill Hodges has to be one of the most forgettable. A few lines here or there about his past glories is not enough to convince of his greatness and an expanding gut does not replace depth. I said that King was having fun exploring the traditions of hard-boiled literature, it’s just a shame he forgot to make sure his audience was able to do the same.
If Bill Hodges is the same old maverick detective so familiar in the hard-boiled genre then Brady is a killer more akin to the Hitchcockian tradition. With deep-seated psychological issues and a dodgy relationship with his mother, Brady could easily have stepped out of a frame of Psycho and straight onto the pages of Mr Mercedes. In the long-run, the Mercedes Killer doesn’t really end up being a particularly memorable or threatening figure and often falls into the realms of banality. What he does, though, is represent a real evil. In all of his work King tackles the horrors of real-life; those menaces hiding behind closed doors, working alongside you and living a supposedly normal life. His horror novels all deal with a prevalent social fear that King intertwines with the supernatural scenarios his prose creates. Mr Mercedes echoes the many public massacres that have been reported in the news with more and more frequency in recent years. Mr Mercedes lacks narrative tension but King’s novel seems all the more chilling because of how possible a scenario it is.