Saturday, June 16, 2018

Review: Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes features perhaps some of the most interesting, most complex characters he has written to date. King often succeeds in writing interesting heroes, but he usually falls short in writing more complex villains - generally they are of the one-dimensional, pure evil variety. Brady Hartsfield, otherwise known as Mr. Mercedes, is not one-dimensional, though he is quite evil. He is a disgusting person, but at times King is able to elicit pity for him and show his humanity. The hero, Bill Hodges, is also human, in that while he is a competent detective, perhaps one of the best, he is not a perfect individual. Not to say he is unlikeable, but that King has succeeded in creating characters that allow the reader to see parts of themselves in, people to empathize with rather than idolize or envy. On top of that, the story is quite good - tense, thoughtful, reflective, humorous, and terrifying.

Mr. Mercedes is one of those cases Bill Hodges didn't solve. A man wearing a clown mask plowed over and killed 8 people waiting in line for a job fair. The cops found the vehicle and the owner of the vehicle, but they never discovered who was behind the wheel at the time of the murders. Now that Hodges is retired, his life is meaningless. He watches TV shows he can't stand, such as Jerry Springer and Judge Judy and Dr. Phil. Hodges also has been playing with his father's old revolver. This is the way many retired police officers and detectives go - suicide.

The Mercedes killer knows this. He sends Hodges a taunting letter. Thinking he's smarter than those he's eluded, Brady little realizes he has provided some helpful hints to Hodges. His letter also has the opposite of its intended effect - it motivates Hodges to act rather than to end his life. And so begins a cat-and-mouse game between retired police detective and psychopathic serial killer, one that grows increasingly dangerous not just for the two main actors, but for the many side characters who show up, as well as potentially many others.

Bill Hodges is a likeable hero, smart and thoughtful. We see his flawed side, such as his realization that the judgmental attitude of him and his partner may have caused them to wrong the woman who owned the Mercedes: Olivia Trelawney. And although Hodges begins to see how he wronged her, he continues to misjudge people - something we all do. King is sympathetic to those who appear "different," the so-called outsiders, even if it is that older woman who is self-righteous and nitpicks everyone else's faults. Another story, particularly an NCIS-type story, would have the reader laughing along with the main character at someone like Olivia Trelawney. But King sees the worth in a person like her. Olivia's parents, who show that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, may not get as nice a treatment, but King's sympathy is still there. Hodges, as a sort of regular every man, reveals our own flaws, that we sometimes can't get past our own prejudices and initial impressions to see the deeper side of people. Or we can, but it takes some practice.

Brady is a villain of the worst variety, but King treads surprisingly delicate with him. The story often follows Brady, in the third person limited (just as it does Hodges), and he proves himself to be cuttingly funny, especially as he charmingly says the right thing while thinking awful thoughts. He's also pitiful. King wisely avoids the origin story, but we see his home life, and it's pretty messed up. There are moments when Brady shows his humanity, especially as it involves his feelings with family, but even that grows complicated by his frustrated sexual feelings for his mom. Frustrated not in that they are not reciprocated, but that it feels wrong to feel them. Some of my complaints about King's previous work, such as Under the Dome and 11/22/63, were his thinly developed villains. It's interesting that the TV shows based on those books feature more complex versions of those villains, something especially true of Lee Harvey Oswald, whose television portrayal was much more complex and nuanced than King's portrayal. But King corrects many of his old errors in Mr. Mercedes and makes this a much more compelling read.

King's use of pop culture references and dialogue serve to make the story feel believable and realistic and very much a part of the time it was written - our time. One scene in which characters discuss two of King's well-known characters - the car from Christine and the clown from It - without naming either story goes to show just how deeply-entrenched King's own works have become in pop culture. But King does suffer from bloat, just a little. At times his dialogue goes on longer than it should, or his use of detail is a bit too much. That said, I prefer the life these details give. King could go the route of many other authors of thrillers in providing sparse, get-to-the-point details that make for a fast-paced novel but one that's but a skeleton: no flesh, no filling.

Some criticisms about the plot and character choices that readers might make come down to the fact that these characters don't make the best decisions, and that's only human. That Hodges, a retired detective, would go after a serial killer on his own is the stuff of movies, but Hodges knows it carries serious consequences and just can't help himself. There might also be consequences in him making the right decision. It's encouraging to see that as King gets older, his characters grow more complex and his stories remain just as fascinating and suspenseful and humorous to read.

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