Book Review: Stephen King’s ‘Mr. Mercedes’: Fill ‘Er Up

merc coverWith mass killings by estranged loners becoming scarily commonplace, Stephen King’s new novel, Mr. Mercedes (Scribner, 436 pages, $30, June 3), is as timely as an unearthed clue without a moment to spare. It’s also his most straightforward crime thriller ever — Joyland on steroids — with no supernatural elements but rather a compelling, page-turning case to solve.

That cold case gets a renewed attack by shrewd retired cop Hodges, who never caught “Mr. Mercedes,” the killer who slammed a stolen car into a parking-lot crowd of job-seekers. The killer’s identity is quickly revealed — this is as much his story as Hodges’ — and cat-and-mouse intrigue follows when he tauntingly contacts the ex-cop to goad him into suicidal despair.

What follows has violent moments, including flashbacks, but King seems to respect that this novel isn’t exclusively for horror devotees. Mr. Mercedes is more gripping than gruesome, building tension and excitement instead of resorting to grisly eruptions.

The killer is hauntingly close to recent California killer Elliot Rodger, as Brady is isolated and hateful toward a world which seems to offer him nothing. He’s only close to his alcoholic and twistedly flirty mother, and the bank of computers in his secret war room. (Note to King: Mission Control is in Houston, not at Cape Canaveral.)

Hodges, meanwhile, has ample secret allies in his mission to ferret out the killer before he rightly — and legally — involves his old police pals. For him it’s a tale not so much of redemption but of reawakening from the restless slumber of dead-end retirement.

One problem: Brady is bent on one last blaze of ingloriousness. And wouldn’t that boy-band concert in a packed arena be a good place?

Since the reader has the keys to the mystery Hodges must unlock, the tale can spark some impatience. But the arduousness of its sleuthing at least rings more truly than the often impossibly observant Sherlock Holmes in TV’s otherwise superb Elementary. This isn’t about a supercop — it’s about a great but all too human cop.

Warning: Mr. Mercedes is hard to put down. But that’s no indictment — that’s a recommendation.

America’s master storyteller has done it again.

— Bruce Westbrook





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