TWO DAYS before Mr. Mercedes hit shelves, Stephen King was featured in the latest ‘Epic Rap Battles of History’ on Youtube. A happy coincidence, I thought, before suddenly realising that this video could have been released at nearly any time and it would have probably been close to a new Stephen King book . This was not the video I was particularly interested in however (despite listening many times) – what caught my eye near the release date was a talk that Kind had delivered at the University of Maine (where else, right?).
The talk is split into two parts; a lecture in the University’s main hall, and another smaller and more personal discussion with the current students of the English and Creative Writing department. During this event, the students asked him many questions, eventually getting to the subject of where he gets his ideas from. The King of Horror responded by talking about about a news article he saw in which a woman chasing her husband’s mistress had ran over passer-bys waiting for a job fair to open. Inspired by this, King went on to create a serial killer who mows down a crowd of people looking for employment at a job fair whilst describing the killer’s feelings in the most gruesome, gory and grisly possible detail. This gives you an insight into this story, an unrelenting and unforgiving account of a serial killer’s perspective that feels so genuine you grow just a little concerned for Stephen’s psyche by the end of the book.
The book starts by introducing us to two characters camping in-line all night outside a job fair at the height of the recession. Augie Odenkirk and Janice Cray, two souls down on their luck and beaten so badly by the recession that they both admit they honestly have no idea what they’re going to do if they don’t get a job. To make matters worse, Janice is with her baby, having been unable to find a single person back home to look after him. For me, this is one of the most memorable and honestly best written parts of the book. In such a short space of time the two characters bond with not just each other but also with the reader, you really want them to do well, find employment and get back on their feet. Unfortunately, this is just the prologue, and the fate of Augie and Janice remain a series of ‘what ifs’.
As the actual story begins we learn about our main character Bill Hodges, a retired detective who spent forty years on the force and now struggles to adapt to civilian life. He finds his days slipping by watching Jerry Spinger and Judge Judy, whilst everyday the thought of ending it becomes more and more appealing. Stroking his service weapon (not a euphemism) and feeling what it’s like to have the barrel inside his mouth (certainly not a euphemism), all seems lost until he receives a letter from the Mercedes killer – one of the few criminals that Hodges never caught.
The killer mocks him, describing how pleasurable it was to take lives as he drove over their bodies and how there was only one thing hard about doing so (now that one is a euphemism). The whole letter comes down to him telling the retired detective to kill himself, but in an ironic twist of fate this has provided Hodges with the only reason he needs to stay alive.
A few chapters in we suddenly find ourselves reading about someone else. Brady Hartfield, an IT specialist and ice cream truck driver. who we very quickly learn is the Mercedes killer. My immediate thought was that King had killed any suspension and mystery surrounding the story, but I was very wrong. I think that less experienced writers telling the story from both the detective and killer’s point of view would ruin the suspense. With King however, it works incredibly well, and there are still a lot of questions about the case which are not answered until much later.
Remember when I said that you’d worry a little about King’s psyche? It’s because he creates the perspective and mind-set of a serial killer near perfectly, I generally felt that I was viewing the world from a killer’s mind when I read Brady’s chapters. The strange thing is that you don’t really hate him – there’s no mistaking he’s evil but you find him more and more fascinating. He has a tragic back-story and a very messed up life, and so you almost begin to understand how someone is driven to such an unstable mental state and why he resorts to such violent actions.
The biggest compliment I can give to this book is just how real the characters feel. Brady and Hodges’s actions all make complete sense; the more you learn about them, the more their actions reflect their personality. You understand Brady’s perception but you also understand Hodges’ – the book constantly switches between these two completely different personalities and it works. The reader really gets to know how the protagonist and antagonist both think.
Before retirement, Hodges was one of the best detectives the police force had; this comes across without fault in the story. The connections, the clues, the leads all make sense – it’s not like Sherlock where one insignificant detail will suddenly unravel the whole murder (not a shot at Sherlock by the way). Hodges goes through dead ends, gets stuck, even doubts himself, but he also tracks down more clues by methods I didn’t think of. He acts like a real detective, a good detective.
This book will make you laugh, it’ll make you feel empathy and there’s a particularly powerful chapter on Brady’s backstory, but most of all it’ll make you feel suspense. King steps away from many of his usual tropes; it’s not set in Maine and it’s not supernatural for example; but there’s no mistaking his gripping and gritty writing style.
If I had to nitpick, I’d say that the story does slow down quite a bit before the middle, but this also gives a chance to learn about our characters so I can’t really fault it too much. Mostly what I didn’t like was the ending, specifically the epilogue, but I won’t go into that for fear of spoiling it for you.
If you enjoy detective stories, or other work from King, then I certainly recommend this as a read. Apparently he is planning on turning Hodges’s retirement detective work into a trilogy, so if you enjoy this book there’s more to come.
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