Has there ever been a more industrious name-dropper than Stephen King? Mr Mercedes is dedicated to the memory of James M Cain, and contains passing references to Sherlock Holmes and Raymond Chandler. As this suggests, Mr Mercedes tilts at crime fiction, a joust that King has engaged in before with The Colorado Kid and Joyland. Mixing it with genre classics doesn’t seem to be where his allusive heart really is. This beats to the pulse of the superior thrillers that have ennobled 21st-century television: The Wire, Dexter, CSI, NYPD Blue, Homicide, Luther, Prime Suspect, Bones are all cited.
If this hints at a tale fusing entertainment and realism, then the wonderful opening gives cause for optimism. Augie Odendirk (a double allusion, perhaps, to Sauls Bellow and Goodman?) queues overnight for work, befriending a single mother and her baby, all of whom are murdered by a maniac piling a Mercedes into the desperate crowd.
Sadly, the remaining 394 pages fail to live up to this fusion of vivid setting, rounded characters and genuine menace. The plot is, essentially, a two-hander between a hero and villain who emerge like photocopies of other people’s sharper ideas. Bill Hodges is a retired detective who, almost inevitably, is haunted by the emptiness of his post-cop life and the ones that got away. Hodges’ biggest uncaught fish is the Mercedes Killer (aka Brady Hartsfield). A misanthropic ice cream man (honestly), he offers a pitch-perfect impression of Psycho’s Norman Bates down to an Oedipal complex that gives, well, Oedipus a run for his mummy.
Whatever mystery and velocity this game of cat-and-mouse generates is hampered by King’s exhaustive establishment of his fictional world. This basically means endless brand names, overlong explanations of everything from reality television to modern car-locks, character studies that add unearned poignancy (the sudden mention of Holly Gibney’s teenage struggles) and conversational longueurs that Karl Ove Knausgaard would dismiss as tedious.
The real drawback, however, is King’s prose. At its unsettling best, this convinces that pets rise from the dead. At its worst, it is a twee mish-mash of folk wisdom and contemporary jargon. Just because comedians overuse “Booya” doesn’t mean it has any business at the end of a paragraph. The line in which Brady compares the coldness of his lollipops to that of his conscience-free mind deserves its own award ceremony. Tellingly, Hodges credits Brady with a vibrant writing style when in reality it is a pompous, cliché-laden travesty: see page 26 if you don’t believe me. More problematic is the monotony of King’s tone. Whereas Raymond Chandler, say, shifts from sardonic wit to visceral thrills to paranoia to genuine existential ennui, King hammers away like an infuriated blacksmith.
Mr Mercedes is a curious kind of failure. A knowing homage that manages to be weirdly boring to read, it doesn’t refresh genre conventions so much as wind up enslaved to them. The shock-horror ending – evil eyes snapping open – is doubtless meant to be chilling. Sadly, it comes off simply as one final commonplace that King remembered to include.
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