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.
Since the days of writers like Raymond Chandler, there has been a modernisation of the hard-boiled tradition and the archetypal gumshoe has continued to hold his place in our culture thanks to shows like The Wire and True Detective. Despite gleefully playing with the traditions of the genre, King is more willing to associate his novel with the energy of these 21st-century crime thrillers. Thank fuck, then, that Mr Mercedeshas been picked-up for a limited television series.
Particularly considering its opening chapter is the kind of dramatic and visual feast that so often precedes an opening credits sequence. In 2009 a group of desperate job-seekers queue 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 fucking hard as car does its victims. It is also a bloody great metaphor in relation to the recent social climate: a luxury vehicle crushing the people the recession had already left battered and bruised. As a reader, you are instantly hooked; just whose side is the killer on and what are his motivations in 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 fucking 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 has become 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. The narrative gives as much respect to Brady’s storyline as it does to Hodge’s but is careful to never completely blur the lines between right and wrong. We may be able to explore the morality and motivations of both parties but King never leaves us with any doubt about who is right and who is wrong: even if it is impossible to tell why we should care.
Considering the novel is essentially a two-hander, neither of the main characters are 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, its just a shame he forgot to make sure his audience were 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 realistic 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 in narrative tension but King’s novel seems all the more chilling because of how possible a scenario it is.