I haven’t been completely blown-away by a Stephen King novel since 2011’s 11/22/63. Therefore, it shouldn’t be too surprising that I went into Mr. Mercedes with much hesitation and reserve.
In hindsight, I almost wish I hadn’t waited a year to read it, as the first installment of the Bill Hodges trilogy impressed me far more than I ever could have anticipated. But I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason, and the right time had come for me. And hey, look at it another way: the second book, Finders Keepers, is readily available as soon as I can get my hands on it.
I won’t go into the synopsis. The Mercedes Killer is pretty much common knowledge, and besides, I think it’s best to go into most books with as little information as possible. Instead, I’ll briefly describe what I liked best about it, and the areas I think could (perhaps should have) been improved upon or done differently.
For starters, the few pages which comprise the opening act blew my mind in a way that most imitators simply don’t, or perhaps can’t, replicate. He does it in such a manner that isn’t superficial in any way. Instead, the prose seems to revel in intensity, heart, and understanding of the human condition. What King delivers in regards to the development of these characters is the essence of compassion, personal integrity, and and love for their fellow man. These are some of the author’s strengths, and they all shine through as he explores the world’s economic collapse. This is a well developed theme, one that is recurring through the novel and, from what I’ve been told, Finders Keepers, as well. So needless to say, the tragic events of the prologue serve their purpose. It isn’t like he wrote it for the sake of being intense and assuring himself that the reader will be hooked. King needn’t employ such cheap tricks. He’s much more confident and accomplished than that. In just about any other writer’s hands, this shocking scene would surely come across as mediocre and vain, but King brings the maturity of his forty-plus year career and dazzles even the most jaded of Constant Readers.
One common critique I’ve heard in the year since its publication concerns Bill Hodges and Co., opining that they’re cardboard flat. I HATE flatness. I need maturity and growth. Thankfully, I didn’t find them to be this way at all. These four characters are the antithesis of a plot-driven thriller. It soon became obvious to me that King really took the time to get to know them, and in unexpected ways, too. The joy they brought him is palpable, infectious.
Another critique is of Hodges himself. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure what to think of him at first, but I grew to love him. For all his quirks, flaws, and strengths. His sorrow and his passion for the job, for life. His hopes, fears, and dreams. Lastly, for the sense of redemption still at work in his soul. I love him deeply.
Not-so-young Holly Gibbons is my absolute favorite, though. I adore her weirdness, complexity, and various-sometimes conflicting- idiosyncrasies. At the same time, there is a childlike simplicity about her that I can’t exactly pinpoint nor describe or even fully comprehend. I am very much looking forward to reuniting with and getting to know her on a deeper level.
Jerome is great, too. A kick in the pants, really, and he’s intelligent. His sense of humor provided many laugh out loud moments, and it’s what drew me to him in the first place. But then he was developed more and more, almost like an old Polaroid snapshot: blurry and opaque initially, but given time, he emerged fully grown and colorful, with diverging lines and angles capable of most anything. Even love.
Brady left me torn. On the one hand, he’s an archetype of most antagonists seen in detective fiction today. Not only that, but most of his characteristics are classic King samples. Essentially, he’s a big cliche. In fact, a large portion of the novel feels cliched. I think this might have been intentional on the author’s behalf, simply because he’s much better than a bunch of cliche’s strung together to form a page-turning narrative. I find it hard to believe that the masterful creator of IT, The Dark Tower series, ‘Salem’s Lot and The Dead Zone (amongst many others) could unintentionally conform to the masses. I refuse to believe it. On the other hand, Brady is a product of one extremely messed up and sad environment, and in the hands of his awful mother, it’s no wonder he turned out the way he did. Parts of me pities him, I kind of want to like him, if only because he was capable of a lot more. I want to fall into the text and help him.
“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.”
What enfolds is an increasingly intense, page turning, psychological game of cat of mouse. I couldn’t put it down. I must admit though that I kind of dreaded the Brady scenes, and found the unlikely trio wholly fascinating. As the stakes became higher and higher, I couldn’t wait to find out how it would end, and the story lingered in my mind more often. Almost incessantly, really. At about the halfway point, however, the stakes became too high, in a way, and I feared that King wouldn’t deliver a satisfying ending. And if it played out as it appeared, the opening act would be pale in comparison.
Mr. Mercedes would have been a solid five star read for me, if not for the disappointing and IMO, cheesy denouement. In fact, it pretty much was an unofficially amazing read. I won’t go into how it plays out (even though I obviously could hide it under a spoiler tag,) but I will say this: King’s endings never used to be so simplistic and as much of a let-down as this, and it angers me. It saddens me. His recent work has been marketed as “vintage King,” his “return to balls-to-the-wall horror..” Alas, these aren’t it.
It saddens me because many Constant Readers know that he’s capable of much better and honest work. So much more….
Yet somehow, I cannot wait to read Finders Keepers. It beckons still. That, in itself, speaks volumes.