Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Stephen King wrote a goddamn procedural. A straight up detective mystery! There’s no reason he can’t or shouldn’t, and he did a pretty damn fine job of it. I keep trying to tell people that not every Stephen King story is straight up horror. There’s almost always elements in there, but he writes more small town life than anything else. That’s why my recommendation for people looking to break into his work is always Different Seasons. Three of the four novellas have been made into movies: Apt Pupil, The Body (which is Stand by Me), and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, which of course became the movie Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties.
Mr. Mercedes is the first in what is going to be a trilogy. It’s kind of a fascinating recreation here. I’ve read a LOT of mystery/detective stuff. King’s doing the story from the perspective of the detective and the perspective of the titular killer. Been done before, and naturally, King’s great at getting in the headspace of a psychopath.
Bill Hodges is King’s hero, a retired detective who has gained weight while sitting in front of his television, snacking on daytime television and pondering snacking on his service revolver. He’s depressed, when suddenly he receives a letter in the mail from The Mercedes Killer. A year prior, a man drove a stolen Mercedes into a crowd waiting for a job fair, killing eight people and injuring more, and managed to get away scot free. It was one of Hodges’ cold cases, and now he’s energized. He wants to catch this son of a bitch, and so he starts working towards that end.
Meanwhile, Brady Hartsfield is living creepily with his alcoholic mother, working as an ice cream man and a tech guru at a version of Best Buy called Discount Electronix. He was the maniac who drove over all the people, and his sociopathic nature has him craving more. He terrorized the old woman who’s Mercedes he stole into committing suicide, and now he’s trying to do the same to the fat ass cop who retired. Reading the Brady parts is like biting into an apple, while the hand holding it sinks into the rotted moldy part. It’s fucking horrifying.
King does an admirable job with the detective story, which kind of dances this line between small town Midwest (no Maine for this story) and dime-store hard boiled. I personally think JK Rowling does it better in her Robert Galbraith costume with Cormoran Strike, but I think Hodges’ horrible ghost is what makes this work.
The biggest issue I have with the story — and this is a common complaint levied against King, so I tread lightly — is that there’s this weird racism. I’m reading Daniel Woodrell now, and I’ve read plenty of James Ellroy, so there’s ways to portray racists who sling slurs and hideous mindsets without seeming terrible. Brady Hartsfield is a fucking nightmare when it comes to Hodges’ boy-Friday, Jerome and Jerome’s family. Jerome is a super bright, intellectually savvy seventeen year old who mows Hodges’ lawn and helps him with his computer.
The problem is, Jerome likes to break into this fake Stepin Fetchit patois where he slurs stuff like, “I’s is one gooooood cho doer, massuh!” He’s clearly doing to make fun of stereotypes, but it’s just….no. NOPE. King’s had trouble writing for teens since about when his sons became them, and coupled with Jerome’s banter — especially when Hodges plays along and sasses him back with it. It’s just problematic. It’s like an older person saying on fleek or speaking in emoji. Again, I’m not saying Stephen King is a racist. I’m saying that this gimmick he’s adopted is really uncomfortable and unnecessary.
Still, it’s a neat departure from the usual horror, and I’m excited to see what happens with Finders Keepers, which is released Tuesday along with every other goddamn book in creation apparently.