Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.
Detective Bill Hodges is 62, overweight, divorced and retired. He lives alone and has an uncomfortably familiar relationship with his father’s pistol. The two spend long hours together in front of the tube, taking in the sort of Maury-Povich-mind-poison that is probably grown in basement vats to be sold to post-lobotomy viewers for the price of a gazillion commercials, disposable hours of a pointless life, and a willingness to cash in one’s remnant humanity for a permanent gig as a morality-blind multi-eyed sofa spud.
Hodges had been on the job when a particularly heinous crime had been committed, but was out before he could find the evil-doer. His pre-suicidal reverie is disturbed by the non-postal-service delivery of a printed message. The nut job who did the crime taunts Hodges for his failure, and encourages him to take his suicidal contemplation a step further. Fat chance.
As far as the term hard-boiled goes, I feel pretty comfortable applying it to eggs (cooked in water until the yolk is firm). As for hard-boiled fiction, there are probably as many different definitions as there are diverse sorts of egg-layers. So I will offer no litmus test here to measure whether Mr Mercedes satisfies a certain set of definitional criteria. Is it truly hard-boiled or not? Is it truly noir-ish or not? To which I can only reply. Sorry dear, did you say something? Could you pass the bourbon, please. There are many sub-categories of the mystery genre, 14 of which are noted for your pleasure on the web site of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. And I am certain that Mr Mercedes fits nicely into one of them. But whether you prefer your mystery tales hard-boiled, soft-boiled, poached, scrambled, fried or over-easy, the one thing that counts here is the
chef author. Whatever he does with and to the genre, Stephen King will take you for a ride that includes at least a bit and maybe more than a bit of a scare. And scary is scary whether the source is a haunted house, a psycho alien clown or a very sick puppy.
Said sick puppy opens this story by driving the large Mercedes of the title directly into a crowd of the hopeful and desperate at a job fair in an unnamed Midwest town, killing eight and seriously injuring over a dozen more. (King talks about the genesis of this scene here, in a video clip from TV station WABI in Maine.) Not a recreational activity most of us might indulge in, but for Brady Harstfield murdering and maiming constitutes good times. He makes ends meet as a house-calling IT guy. His second job is as an ice-cream vendor. And, while it is fun to see Brady in his white truck gig, it did feel rather forced. If you are expecting Raymond Chandler here, or Dashiell Hammett, you will have to holster your expectations. There will be no trying-to-figure-out-whodunit in this story. The looney tunes with the diminished conscience and enlarged mommy issues is presented straight away as our psycho-killer. So, more Columbo than Marlowe. The trail we follow is in how the goodies discover and find their way to the baddie.
Erstwhile Detective Hodges takes the lead. King spends some time with introductions, as Mr Mercedes is the first of a planned trilogy. So we get to know a bit about him and his partners in anti-crime. Jerome Robinson is 17, black, 6’5”, a computer whiz, within reason, and Ivy League bound. He has been doing some lawn work and occasional IT assistance for Hodges, and is the closest thing the old guy has to a friend. Holly Gibney, 44, has issues, having spent a few sessions in institutions for the very nervous. She is a cousin to the late owner of the Mercedes that was used in the carnage. Hodges met her as he looked into the death of her cuz. Her mother Charlotte is an awful human being, controlling, greedy, and incapable of seeing Holly’s better qualities. She has some, intelligence and tenacity being high on that list. This oddball trio (the Harper Road Irregulars?) work the case, without, of course, involving the police any more than absolutely necessary. I found them extremely engaging. Jerome is probably too perfect, and Holly may be a bit too twitchy, but they are fun to follow.
King shows his playfulness with the genre, whatever genre it actually is. Of course, Hodges is just a retired detective not a PI, but when Holly’s aunt, Janelle Patterson, (named, surely, for a certain author King has called “a terrible writer”) hires him he takes a step in the genre direction. (I have vowed not to make any jejune comments regarding private dicks) Janelle even buys him what she calls a Philip Marlowe fedora. Janelle is, of course, the mandatory femme fatale, but if so, she is on the light side, lacking some of the attributes normally associated with that type. Could Hodges’ Harper Road address be a nod to Ross McDonald’s Lew Harper? The baddie references several cop dramas, NYPD Blue, Homicide, and The Wire, for example. Luther and Prime Suspect are noted as well, in a disparaging way. Mentions of Wambaugh and Grisham appear, and King double dips by naming a records department cop Marlo. There are undoubtedly many more, but those are the ones that jumped out at me.
King lets us look over Brady’s shoulder as well as over Hodges’, and tosses in some third-party views as well. Parenthood comes in for a difficult time. Only Jerome, of all the major, or even secondary characters, has a decent parent-child relationship with his actual family. Of course bubby family life is not exactly a staple of detective fiction, so that fits well enough.
Madness is the doorway that writers step through when they want to introduce a bit of fantasy to an otherwise real-world scenario. And SK simply could not help himself. Mr Mercedes is most definitely a non-fantasy novel, but there are a few (really, only a few) moments when familiar King woo-woo material appears. It will be interesting to see if this is a recurring feature in his trilogy or if SK can stay on the non-fantasy wagon for the entire ride.
So what’s the bottom line here? Stephen King cranks out novels, it seems, like Hershey produces kisses. They are all tasty and appealing, but there is a definite sameness to the product. King can draw readers in. He offers engaging characters, and understands the mechanics of tension and release as well as any living writer. Put a red wrapper on it and it remains a tasty treat. Blue? Same deal. I bet if King wanted to write a historical romance it would have engaging characters, some danger, some resolution. It would pull you in and hold on like a succubus (no, not public transportation through a red-light district) or like a succubus on a private dick. Sorry, I just could not stop myself. But at least I put the offending material under a spoiler tag, so that makes it ok, right? or, in this case, a femme fatale. I thought the anti-religion musing in which the killer indulges seemed like an interesting theme to explore further, but it seemed to fade.
You will rip through Mr Mercedes faster than the posted limit. There are some scary moments as you careen through, and you will care whether this one or that one comes to a bad end. Some do, some don’t. It is probably a good thing that King is looking to write things other than straight-up horror. He has to amuse himself somehow, keep those possessed typing fingers of his out of trouble. But overall, while Mr Mercedes will get you from here to there and show you a thing or two along the way, it felt a lot more like basic transportation than a true luxury ride.
Posted – 1/3/15
Published June 3, 2014
Otto Penzler has nifty description of what constitutes hard-boiled fiction
A Gif of the UK cover is cute, but I thought it too distracting to include above