With Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King continues to show that his greatest strength as a writer is his character work. For proof, look no further than the opening section of the novel, in which we become acquainted with three people among the hundreds standing in line waiting for a job fair to open. In a handful of pages King makes us care about a man, a single mom and her baby; care enough, in fact, that there’s a real sense of loss when the three fall victim to a lunatic in a car.
But he’s not done making you care; in fact, King is just getting started. What follows this shocking opening scene is a tightly-woven chess match between retired detective Bill Hodges and the car’s driver, Brady Hartfield, an all-too-real monster whose human mask is beginning to slip. Taunting Hodges, who spends much of his retirement pondering the ones that got away, is the first sign that Hartfield is growing tired of his anonymous existence. He says he doesn’t plan to attempt another massacre, but a basement full of homemade plastic explosives indicates otherwise.
Hartfield’s taunt serves as a wake-up call for Hodges, who puts aside thoughts of suicide to begin looking into the case again. It’s wonderful watching Hodges transition from merely existing to actually living again. Even better is that Hodges, who was a very good cop but not infallible, doesn’t suddenly become Sherlock Holmes. Like every other human he has his blind spots, and those return to him as readily as his instincts. His new (secret and barely legal) investigation into the Mercedes killing is fraught with the same kind of assumptions and questionable decisions he made during his initial active investigation, and while he manages to overcome most of them they do often lead him – and those around him – into dangerous territory.
As Hodges digs in, he accumulates an unlikely support crew that includes Janey, an attractive younger woman with tragic ties to the job fair massacre; Jerome, the Ivy League bound teen who does yard work for Hodges; and Holly, an emotionally unstable woman who latches on to Hodges because he’s kinder to her than her own family ever managed to be. King brings this crew together in ways that is totally organic and believable, creating a strange sort of family that we can all root for.
Hartfield, on the other hand, is totally irredeemable as a human being. Kings gives his killer a backstory that might elicit some sympathy along the way, but make no mistake: this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Brady Hartfield feels no remorse and no regret, and when he does suppress his impulses its strictly for his own survival. He’s intelligent, resourceful, and completely barking mad.
The bulk of Mr. Mercedes is peaks and valleys; moments of discovery and excitement followed by periods of consideration and reconsideration. Hodges and Hartfield poke and prod each other along, each hoping the other will slip and open the door for their respective endgames. The tension is there but it’s manageable – until the last 80 or so pages when King stomps the pedal to the floor. Just try and put the book down at that point…
I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction lately, and it’s no secret that crime writers love a good series. As I neared the end of Mr. Mercedes I realized I’d grown quite fond of the central trio of Hodges, Jerome and Holly, and I wondered if King would consider revisiting them somewhere down the line – perhaps, I dared to think, Mr. Mercedes could be the beginning of a series of King’s own. As if hearing my thoughts, King took to Twitter right around that time to announce that said trio would be back next year in Finders Keepers, the second book in a proposed trilogy.
“Well then,” I thought, “that’s all right, isn’t it?”