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Book Review: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

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By Nicole Tracy
Literary Columnist

Mr. Mercedes is the opening novel of the Bill Hodges trilogy by Stephen King. Picking the book up and reading the synopsis will tell you this about the story: “In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.

In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.

Brady Hartsfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again. Only Bill Hodges, with a couple of highly unlikely allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.”

With over fifty titles in circulation – touching on everything from vampires, to aliens, to telekinetic teenagers – Stephen King’s work always shares one commonality: suspense. The opening word keeps the reader engaged until the final punctuation mark, no matter how weighty the book. Mr. Mercedes, King’s latest creation, burns bright with an energetic tension, but the wattage dims when the characterizations grow stale and the dialogue hammy.

Bill Hodges is a newly retired detective. Monotony besieges him: He seemingly exists on a diet of Judge Judy, sugary food, and suicidal thoughts. When a taunting letter arrives from a mass murderer whom Bill never caught, our hero’s purpose is renewed and our story escalates with pulse-pounding close calls and twists that defy prediction. The element that elevates the story beyond the common retired cop thriller is the villain, Brady Hartfield.

He’s both monstrous and recognizable – the friendly clerk whose dead eyes defy a nice-guy façade. The author gives us the psychological profile of someone who couldn’t help but develop into a psychopath. It’s a harrowing history that ably evokes both sympathy and repulsion. Among the small cast we’re given, Brady is the one who dominates.

But having one compelling character in a long novel is not enough to distinguish Mr. Mercedes. The story overflows with unnatural banter and bizarrely superficial relationships. Bill Hodges is relentlessly described as an overweight dimwit – good-natured, but a dimwit nonetheless – yet he’s thrown into an instantaneously sexual liaison with an attractive heiress…whom the villain later kills. It’s too easy, playing off unreachably distant emotions since the romance between the two is so undercooked and hasty. We like our hero – we root for him – but we’re reminded that he’s fictive when King chooses such an implausible coupling.

Stephen King rarely wastes his readers’ time. Pick up any of his novels, and odds are you’ll be rewarded. Mr. Mercedes reminds us that King keeps discovering new plots, keeps his audience gratified, but can’t overcome the familiar shortcomings that nip at the heels of his swift, nimble stories.

Mr. Mercedes is available at the Howard County Public Library. Copies are limited, so if it is unavailable, ask at the front desk to be placed on the waiting list for it.