I used to love Stephen King’s work. As a teenager and into my early twenties, I devoured most of his early novels, from Cujo and Firestarter to the Bachman Books to the Dead Zone and It to Needful Things and Desperation. As I got older I eventually tired of his style and, as well, King went through a period of really bad writing in the 2000s. But in recent years his writing has recovered somewhat and I enjoyed Doctor Sleep, King’s sequel to The Shining, released in 2009.
So, killing a few hours waiting for a delayed plane before Christmas, I decided to pick up Mr Mercedes, one of King’s recent offerings. Released in 2014, the novel is a self-styled ‘hard-boiled detective book’ and marketed as King’s first foray into noir territory. I took that with a pinch of salt as King has always simultaneously dealt with varied subject matter while having his own distinctive style and I expected to find that here–accurately, as it turned out.
I wanted to like this book, but sadly, it sucks. It starts quite strongly, with a dramatic opening that sets the scene for the rest of the novel. This is followed by an unusual and very interesting section where the wretched protagonist, retired detective Bill Hodges, reads a lengthy letter from a mass murderer who evaded capture during his career. I found this interesting because the letter is written in a curiously affected style which immediately brought to my mind the thought patterns of someone with moderate to severe autism. I have very rarely, if ever, encountered this style in fiction, and I don’t know where King got the idea, or whether it was even intentional, but it’s uncanny.
The problem is that King uses up his two good ideas for the book inside the first twenty or thirty pages, the rest of the novel serving up a diet of unapologetic cliche. As indicated above, Hodges is a big part of the problem. The retired detective is completely lacking in charisma or charm. Self-regarding, shallow and obese, he is said to be contemplating suicide at the beginning of the story but nothing about his personality or life reaches out to the reader. He is supposed to have been a brilliant detective but the detective work that goes on here is perfunctory, and you will learn nothing about the actual content of policing as you might expect in a procedural novel. The early stages of the book make knowing references to shows like The Wire but, to me, King demonstrates here a lack of will to engage with the reality of American police work and instead borrows liberally from every half-baked cliche from mob and crime films of the 1980s and 1990s.
Hodges is in his early 60s, massively overweight and spends his days eating and watching daytime TV, before being lured out of retirement by the eponymous villain. He’s obsessed by puddings and sweets–yes, really. Yet somehow, he is seduced by a beautiful, athletic, charming, and charismatic multimillionaire heiress who is almost twenty years his junior and who apparently hasn’t had sex in two years. Wow, I never knew there was such a shortage of eligible men in America. Oh, and she also has him on a PI retainer for thousands of dollars a week. In other words, it’s a fantasy for delusional middle-aged men.
I found the sections involving their whirlwind romance to be unreadable. It gets worse, as Hodges’ beau buys him a fedora which becomes a recurring motif throughout the film. King apparently is not familiar with the fedora meme, but suffice to say, trying to compensate for a complete absence of personality or physical appeal by wearing a fucking hat at ‘just the right angle’ is about as lame and pathetic as it gets. Overall, Hodges is a completely unlikable and forgettable lead and one of the worst I’ve encountered in years.
Hodges has a few sidekicks to help his investigations, namely a 17-year old black teenager, Jerome, who does odd jobs for him; and Holly, a neurotic woman in her 40s who has an inexplicable admiration for the rotund retiree and who undergoes a sort of metamorphosis under Hodges’ influence. There’s not much to say about these characters. I found King’s use of racial humour here to be cringeworthy at best, which struck me as odd as it’s not something I remember much from his other work. One strange thing about Holly is that towards the end of the book Hodges mentions that the age gap between them (17 years) makes him think of Holly as a ‘kid’, despite the fact that the woman he was sleeping with was a year younger than Holly. I doubt there’s anything to read into it, other than as an example of lazy thinking, editing, and proofreading.
The villain, Brady Hartsfield, is not actually autistic but just your common-or-garden psychopath. King knows his subject well enough and the portrait of a psychopath is adequate but there is nothing really memorable or distinctive or that you haven’t seen before. Likewise, the plot is serviceable but every single thing is predictable and there is nothing after the first 30 pages that will stay with you. The promotional material for the book and some of the reviews I’ve seen try to big up the drama of Hartsfield’s planned crimes, but like I say, there’s nothing new or interesting here.
King knows how to write a novel (he’s had enough practice) and the pacing of the book is enough to keep you reading. The structure and everything is entirely competent. But the story and characters are dire. Kind mentions by name the family members who read the book for him at the end, and you’d think one of them (or his editor) could point that out for him. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth I suppose. The prospect of more of these books is depressing, and somehow this novel got enough plaudits and sold enough copies that King is now turning it into the first part of a trilogy. Frankly, that’s a travesty.