Mr. Mercedes: A Novel
Reading a King novel has become an annual thing for me the past few years. Previously I read a couple gigantic "classics" (It and The Stand). This time I went for something more recent: the first book in what's become the Bill Hodges trilogy, Mr. Mercedes. A detective thriller rather than horror, the book maintains suspense while shifting between mostly Hodges's pov and the killer's. It's a dance where sometimes the ex-detective is in the lead, and sometimes the "perk" (as the latter mistakenly terms a perp).
As always, the characters and story were engaging, and you can count on King for humor and an interest in contemporary popular culture. A key scene is set at a fictional boy band concert, clearly a One Direction nod. I love that despite the killer's nasty take on the scene, we see a mother, daughter, and friends enjoying the experience.
When I've come across reviews of this series, the lead characters are always mentioned as a draw: Hodges and his unofficial partners Jerome and Holly. They're an odd, interesting trio: an old ex-cop, a super-smart and charismatic black teenager, and a neurotic, middle-aged womanchild just coming into her own.
Sometimes Jerome's intelligence and middle-class background are highlighted a bit too much, as if to say, "He's black but not poor or a criminal! Aren't you surprised?" And the killer is not only that, he's racist, misogynist, ableist--every kind of -ist--to boot, like we needed those things to really find him awful. I'm not saying it's unbelievable that such a sociopath would hate people generally, but it's a bit of an anvil dropping on your head.
I do wish Holly had shown up or become involved sooner. I struggled to care about Janey, a victim's relative, and actually hoped she'd be killed; I don't think I was supposed to feel that way. :) Janey feels like she exists to help Hodges get on his feet again and to give him motivation to get the killer (in other words, she feels like a plot device, not a person). Holly has an actual arc despite not being present for about half the book.
Despite these couple caveats, I'll definitely read the next book in the series when I'm in the mood for a thriller and eager to spend more time with these characters.
Mr. Mercedes is the first volume of a projected trilogy concerning Bill Hodges, his friends...and his enemies.
There are many average writers out there. They scribble their way through life, making enough money to keep themselves in Moleskines and pens, they might even make the best seller’s list a time or two, but at some point the road to fame and fortune dead-ends. They never get a solid hold on the brass ring.
Then, there are the good writers. Better than most, they can pay the bills on their writing alone, and may even have an award or two mounted above their desk or be asked to speak at conferences. This group is fewer in number than the average Joe’s.
The last group is the one the author of this week’s book review choice has found a permanent home in. The greats. The ones that leave the rest of us to believe magic flows from their pen. There are many from the past, but for this blog, I’ll stick to modern-day authors that have earned their status as one of the greats.
John Grisham. Maya Angelou. Lee Child. James Patterson. Jodi Picoult. Lisa Scottoline. And when listing the best of the best, who would not include Stephen King?
First, I’d like to say that I have not liked every book Mr. King has ever written. But I will go as far as to say he’s brilliant. A genius. (And, as part of the charm, maybe a bit twisted?) For example, I didn’t care for Under the Dome. It wasn’t the writing style that took away from that book for me, but the subject matter. That is a personal choice and too many readers confuse the actual writing with the matter.
Mr. Mercedes is Stephen King at his finest. It was like revisiting his glory days: Misery, Needful Things, Green Mile, Cujo, Carrie. They were the novels that made me a tried and true King fan; the reason I limp through the not-so-great ones, because I know he will be back with something even bigger and badder.
When I finish a book, I go to Amazon if for no other reason than to see where my opinion (that’s really all a review is) falls in line with the vast majority. Sometimes is does, and other times… not so much. While reading several of the 1-star reviews, I was astonished! How could anyone hate (and that word was used a time or two) a book that I so thoroughly enjoyed? Yet, it happened.
So many books of this type begin strong, but somewhere around the midway point lose grasp of the threads needed to sew up the story. It can be daunting to keep facts straight while keeping the story on track, and the flow coming, and gaping holes filled, and, and, and…
Stephen King is a master storyteller. The Elvis of word-weaving and warped minds (I mean that with affection). Mr. King took a 60-something retired detective, someone whose highlights in life would generally be behind him and gave him purpose, breathed life into his TV watching, suicide-contemplating, donut-eating self. There was so much I loved about the book (and a couple of things I didn’t), but overall, it was one of the best King books I’ve read in a while. I’ll begin with the likes:
1. Characters are richly drawn. Not just the main characters, but even the minors such as Mrs. Telawney who we only really get to know posthumously. King includes enough detail about each, including personality, habits, ticks, and such, that long before you finish reading, they feel like old friends. But, he does it in a way that feels natural, as you would learn about a next door neighbor. No info dumps to slow the story, no ‘why did he go off on the rant’. He weaves the information in a way that you don’t realize he’s doing it.
2. Flow. So many authors, even some considered good by the reading world as a whole, have yet to master flow. Some start off strong and fizzle out before the end of the second act while others never really get their story off the ground. I noticed with this King book–even more so than with others–his pacing was dead on. As it neared the end, the paragraphs, sentences and even the words seemed to quicken to keep pace with the story. I found myself trying to read faster!
3. Details. Right down to the most minute, he leaves nothing out. If Brady was watching someone, I could almost feel his eyes on me!
4. Length. Some might think this isn’t a big point, but if you’ve read 11/22/63, you’d realize it is. That was a book I truly enjoyed (story-wise), but I feel it was too heavy by about 3 bells (300 pages or so). Considering that many of the reviewers agreed…
5. Story. It was interesting. It was fresh. It wasn’t predictable.
6. He’s not afraid to kill! That’s a biggie whether you realize it or not. Some writers refuse to kill off a likable character because they are afraid their readers will get mad. That boggles my mind, but I’ve heard it said often enough to know it’s true. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but he kills off a character that, although not a major player herself, has a major impact on one of the main character. I call them impact characters. They come in, make a huge impact to either one of the characters or on the story in general, and then they’re gone. Janelle Patterson.
I mentioned a few things I may not have been fond of, (if only he had consulted me… :) )
1. Jerome is a likable guy. I bought his intelligence, his personality, and even the role he played in the story. To a point. What I found a bit out of whack was his street savvy. A black 17-year-old, raised in a privileged household, who is a good kid – had too much street savvy. Sure, he’s smart and he knows how to Google anything he wants to know, but he still came off as too worldly for his age and upbringing.
2. Holly, a middle-aged, young-minded woman somehow talks Gallison, the security guard, into helping them when in real life, he would have taken them in. Even with Hodges involved, but not directly present, he goes against protocol and helps them. I thought that was a bit unrealistic. Creative license? That said, I thought King stretched the Holly character a bit too far between extremes. To a degree I found it believable, but after a while, she lost her real-feel. Maybe that was just me.
3. Hodges is having a heart attack. Poor guy. What makes it worse is that he’s having it at the height of the action. But… (That ‘but’ is meaningful because there are many ‘But…s’ throughout the book) Everyone, and I do mean everyone, leaves him to sit alone while they run down bad guys. By the time they get back to him, his lips are blue. Agreed, the sounds of an approaching ambulance might have caused a different outcome, but anyone who has ever been to a concert, especially a boy band concert where most of the audience is pre-teen girls, knows that the atomic bomb could go off outside the venue and no one inside would hear it over the music/screaming/mayhem. So why not call help for him? After all, in the real world, chances are he would have been dead before the action subsided.
A note of interest. There was one thing early on that made me smile. Silly little thing, really. But in the beginning, there is mention of ‘that old Plymouth’ from the horror movie. Any true King fan knows that Plymouth, even without ‘her’ title. I love when an author uses a prop from previous work, especially when it fits, it feels right, and it somehow instantly makes us feel like we’re holding an old friend instead of an entirely new read.
Overall, it was an extremely enjoyable read and even more so if you’re a fan of King’s earlier works. I highly recommend it and would love to hear your thoughts when through. Maybe we’ll be on the same page. And maybe not…