Stephen King’s new novel is about a killer escalating his body count from behind the wheel of a Mercedes and not what I’d hoped for — a King book about a killer car. This is an important distinction for King fans (count me as one) to know right away, because instead of writing another chilling “Christine,” King has written a tepid crime novel that stalls early and often.
From the beginning I had a difficult time with this book. It opens with a mass murder that earns the killer, Brady Hartfield, the moniker Mr. Mercedes. On a cold, wet morning, driving a stolen Benz, Brady plows through a line of unemployed men and women waiting at a job fair. At the moment of impact, King focuses on a single mother huddling inside a borrowed sleeping bag, breast-feeding her colicky infant.
Now, I read lots of crime fiction, and even I thought this opening scene was gratuitous in its emotional brutality. The characters are murdered in this crowded line to make sure we know right away that this killer has no conscience, no remorse and a serious predilection for evil. But crime fiction does this all the time, you say. And it does. But with literary violence. With the hint of a metaphor or an allegory, the suggestion that something meaningful and layered is unfolding in front of the reader. Instead, King’s opening contains none of the above, no characteristic creep or his elegant terror.
But since King is a master storyteller I stayed for the ride, believing that the narrative landscape might change for the better. It never did. The story cuts between Bill Hodges, an overweight retired detective, who finds meaning in his life again when Mr. Mercedes contacts him. Hodges knows the confessional letter is “ninety percent white noise,” but it’s enough for Hodges to lumber out of his La-Z-Boy and practice police work again. Staying in regular contact with the killer online, Hodges hunts Mr. Mercedes.
King may be exploring the nature of violence in contemporary America, but the narrative’s pacing is too slow for it to catch. King plots every action of his main characters, who spend a distracting amount of time thinking things through. Nothing is held back, which means the suspense never gains momentum. At one point, the killer paces in the kitchen he shares with his abusive mother (shades of “Psycho”), contemplating a challenge to the authorship of his crimes, when he exclaims to the empty room, “Credibility! … I need credibility!”
And credibility (King’s literary cred, that is) is the only reason I traveled with “Mr. Mercedes” until the end.
Carole E. Barrowman teaches English at Alverno College in Milwaukee and blogs at carolebarrowman.com.