A Novel Concept

Merc-y Me! Stephen King Novel Shows Different Side of Horror Honcho

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Michael MaloneBy Michael Malone

Mr. Mercedes tells the story of a disturbed young man who steals a Mercedes and crashes it into a group of unemployed men and women in the early morning as they wait for a job fair to open. He kills eight people and injures many more.

And gets away.

Named Brady Hartsfield, the killer works as a computer tech, driving to the homes of those in need of a tech wiz, and is an ice cream man to boot. He lives with his mother, who is an alcoholic and, brace yourself, has a sexual relationship with her son. Neither has been right since Brady’s little brother Frankie, who was brain damaged, was killed.

By a family member.

Across town, there is Bill Hodges. He’s a retired detective who is figuring out how to get through the day without the job. He’s divorced, eats and drinks too much, and eyes his .38 Smith & Wesson with anxious intent. He was on the job when Brady killed the job seekers, and the case continues to haunt him in retirement.

Brady also taunts Hodges with letters and, later, messages on a social platform known as Debbie’s Blue Umbrella.

(Weird typo–he’s Brady Hartsfield throughout the book, but Brady Hartfield on the book’s flap copy. Ouch.)

Brady still sees his old partner now and then, and is also pals, somewhat paradoxically, with a teen in the neighborhood who does odd jobs for him, whether it’s mowing the lawn or sorting out computer issues. Jerome is brilliant, and headed for an elite university.

As Brady taunts Hodges, who he refers to as Det. Ret. (retired detective), he plans to kill Jerome’s family dog Odell, knowing it will send a serious message to Hodges. Jerome is a Black boy, and Brady is a serious racist.

Brady finds rodent poison, puts it in some hamburger, and stashes it in the fridge, planning to serve it up to Odell while on his Mr. Tastey ice cream route. The prospect of Odell being killed, and the effect that has on the family that loves him, looms for a couple hundred pages or so.

But someone finds the burger before Brady can deliver it, with tragic results.

Brady’s next big mission is setting off a suicide bomb at a concert venue, with thousands of pre-teen girls, including Jerome’s sister, not to mention his mother, checking out the boy band Round Here.

All the while, Hodges is tracking Brady, and feeling a purpose in life for the first time since he retired. As the fateful concert is set to happen, Hodges, Jerome and an unlikely accomplice, a highly anxious woman named Holly whose cousin was killed by a Brady Hartsfield car bomb intended for Hodges, aim to save the scads of pre-teen girls.

Is Mr. Mercedes good? It is. I had some issues. It was pretty obvious, at least to me, how the attempted bombing at the concert would play out, though the build-up is nonetheless exciting. The novel came out in 2014, and King unfortunately has his characters use the popular video conferencing platform of the time, which, in a pre-Zoom world, was Skype.

Jerome also frequently breaks into a cringey ebonics-spewing character he calls Tyrone Feelgood Delight. He writes a note to Hodges that reads, “If you has any mo chos for dis heah black boy, hit me on mah honker. I be happy to talk to you if I is not on de job wit one off my hos.”

Surely there’s a better way to show that this A-student has a sense of humor.

But Hodges is a good, credible character, and a guy you root for, and Holly steps up to be essential  to Hodges’ investigation, and a quirky character to boot. King sprinkles in cop lingo–an “uncle” is a retired officer that can’t quite give up the job, a “flatfoot” is a cop walking the beat–that helps bring the story to life.

While much of King’s vast oeuvre deals with supernatural antagonists–a dog that becomes murderous after a bat bite, a monster known as Boogeyman, a shape-shifting killer clown–everything in Mr. Mercedes comes from real life. The New York Times called Mr. Mercedes King’s “first hard-boiled detective novel.”

Its review reads, “For the first half of the novel, King tickles our anxieties, his detective engaging in a classic cat-and-mouse game with the killer. But you can feel him wriggling against the hard-boiled tradition, shaking the hinges. Soon enough, in ways large and small, he rejects and replaces the genre’s creakiest devices. Instead of another hard-drinking soulful detective, King presents a hero who lost interest in alcohol upon his retirement, and whose only addiction is daytime television.”

Speaking of killer clowns, the book references King’s It. Still on the job, Hodges and his partner Pete examine the Mercedes after the job fair incident, and see a clown mask inside of it. “You ever see that TV movie about the clown in the sewer?” asks Pete.

Hodges has not, but later buys the DVD. “The mask-face was very close to the face of Pennywise,” the book reads.

The Mr. Mercedes TV series, with Brendan Gleeson as Hodges, went for three seasons and is on Peacock. But read the book before you watch the show. It isn’t King’s best, but it is worthwhile.

Freelance journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children.

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