Mr. Mercedes

June 21, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

mercedesMr. Mercedes by Stephen King

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Stephen King is one of those authors I usually read as soon as a new book comes out. When Mr. Mercedes first came out, I was knee-deep in my unfinished series project, and I set it aside until I finished those. But King is prolific, and by the time I finished all those unfinished series, Finders Keepers and Revival had both come out, and I decided I had plenty to keep me busy until End of Watch came out, and that I would wait to knock out that whole series at once. So here we are.

Mr. Mercedes is about a retired detective, Bill Hodges, who is depressed and among the many retired police officers who have a hard time adjusting to civilian life. There were open cases left when he retired, one of which haunts him, and one day he receives a taunting letter from the person involved with that case. Thus begins the story of Bill, who winds up getting wrapped up in the case all over again.

The story is more a psychological thriller than a full-blown supernatural horror novel, which I prefer when it comes to King. His stories feel better constructed and contained when he works with real-world events. The book opens in typical King fashion, where he establishes his characters immediately and draws you into their lives. It doesn’t stay in familiar King territory for long, though, as he then kills off those characters and refocuses his story on other characters. I’ve seen this device in stories by other authors — early Joe Lansdale comes to mind — but I’ve never seen King do this. It threw me, because I expected something different, but at the same time, I was impressed that he did something different from what he usually does. I was invested enough in the characters that I expected the story to tell us how the characters overcame their experiences, but not so much that I felt a huge loss over their deaths. It was more shock than anything, where I was asking, “Did that really just happen?”

After that, though, the story progressed in King’s usual fashion. That isn’t to say the story is formulaic — King is better than that — but it follows a more familiar progression. He establishes his main characters, gets us involved in their lives, and develops a plot that flows consistently from point to point. King’s narrative is as compelling as usual, driving the story forward relentlessly and dragging the reader along with it. His characters are familiar, too; he seems to have a small pool of characters he draws on for each novel, just giving them different histories and names. This isn’t necessarily bad, but readers who know King’s work will feel like they’re finding old friends in these characters. They’re not stereotypes, but they follow the King archetype.

The only issue I had with the characters was with Jerome. He’s a black teenager, smart and wise, from a well-to-do family, and King creates that character with the same subtlety and panache that he did with Detta Walker in The Dark Tower. That is, he has the character break into street-jive talking speech every so often. This isn’t Jerome’s main voice — he does it for effect, and only when talking to Bill — but it doesn’t sit right with me. There’s a kind of sly, “I’m going to make my black character cool by having him make fun of himself” subtext there, but when it’s written by a white author, it doesn’t feel sincere. King’s antagonist has little nice to say about Jerome, and his point-of-view includes his racist feelings about him, but that was acceptable because it’s part of his character, and gives us more reason to dislike him. Plus, King showed in It that he could write about black characters without having to resort to stereotypes. What does it prove to have Jerome talk like one, even as a joke? Why demean the character that way?

Speaking of sly, King makes a couple of self-referential remarks near the start of the story. One of his characters thinks about that movie where the car was possessed and killed people, and another one remembers that clown that lived in the sewers in the movie he saw several years back. It didn’t bother me too much (it wasn’t on the level of King writing himself into his own story, like The Dark Tower), namely because it helped cement the idea that this story could be in our world, not King’s. Whether King intended to use those references to help establish the setting isn’t clear, but regardless, it did.

It’s unfair to compare King’s newest work with his earlier work, but it’s hard not to, especially when he talks to his Constant Reader in his afterwords. To me, Cujo and Misery are near-perfect stories, because they flow from one point to the next in the most efficient manner. Mr. Mercedes has a logical progression, but it’s not neat and clean like it is in those books. King picks up a thread, carries it forward in the story for a while, and then abandons it when it no longer serves its purpose. The story is no less gripping, but once I finished and thought back on the story, I didn’t have that feeling of contentment I felt after those books.

Like most of King’s books, Mr. Mercedes is satisfying, even if it’s not a perfect story, or even an example of King’s best work. I’m interested to see how he develops the character into a full series. This book suggests that the series will be standalone stories featuring the same characters, instead of being a single story broken down over multiple volumes. I guess I’ll find out soon enough, since Finders Keepers is next on my list.

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