Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Inevitably there are a couple of spoilers in writing this review, but hopefully nothing that you wouldn't get from reading the blurb and the first few pages of the novel.

Bestselling authors into their fifth decade are not expected to change the template much, but Stephen King, in his last few books has tackled American history in the time travel novel "11.22.63", future apocalypse in "Under the Dome", revisited his earlier horror classic "The Shining" in "Doctor Sleep" and now, in "Mr. Mercedes" has written a contemporary crime thriller.

I probably stopped reading King's books avidly around the mid-90s, partly as he branched out into expansive fantasy novels, and partly as my taste's changed. Yet "11.22.63" which used a wormhole into the past to look at Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination is close to a masterpiece,  and having found it hard to get started on a few recent novels, I picked up his latest "Mr. Mercedes" on a whim in Sainsbury's - after all, King is never anything less than readable.

Atypically for King this is a crime novel, with a retired detective, finding it difficult to cope with the loneliness and inactivity of his new life, finds himself drawn back into an old case, an unsolved crime where an unknown assailant drove into a queue of people queueing for jobs in the harsh economy of 1997. As ever with King, he flinches neither from the horror and carnage of the scene, nor from describing the humanity of the victims. It's a harsh, and somewhat grandstanding start. When the killer contacts retired detective Bill Hodges its through a letter that tells him to log onto a website "Under Debbie's Blue Umbrella" which is a social network for private, untraceable conversations.

Taking the bait, but determined to turn the tables on the killer, Hodges starts this symmetric communication by pressing the killer's buttons. He doesn't believe the killer is who he says he is. But we, as the reader, know different, for King gives us the two sides to the story - we meet Brady, "the Mercedes killer", living at home with his alcoholic mother, holding down two normal but low-grade jobs as computer technician and ice cream salesman. Its an old, but effective technique. In this book, King telegraphs his intentions early on - its a cat and mouse story, like the Michael Mann film "Heat" or even Forsyth's classic "The Day of the Jackal".  But its also clear where King's latest reboot is coming from - he mentions The Wire, Dexter and the BBC's Luther. Its obvious that these 21st century masterpieces in storytelling - some of which probably owe quite a lot to the influence of Stephen King - have been feeding back into his own work. Though early in the book, you feel that it is more second tier stuff such as "The Mentalist" or "Hannibal", exciting but formulaic procedurals, that "Mr. Mercedes" most resembles.

I was enjoying the book from the start, but it takes a while to get into gear - as the lone detective, unable to call on the old resources, except as occasional flavour, takes a while to get things together. He knows that the mass killing weren't the only victims of Brady, for the lady whose car was stolen to commit the crime was also somehow culpable. This slight twist is in fact King's way of getting us deep into his tale. We hear nothing more about the victims of the queue, but King tracks down the sister of the woman who owned the Mercedes. Here we have the typical King gothic. The rich but mentally disturbed family who can be preyed on by the psychologically disturbed Brady. Brady himself is a fascinating creature, one of King's many darkly imagined murderers, whose own life, full of sexual abuse, domestic tragedy and sexual frustration feeds into his crimes.

Hodges pulls together an unexpected support team to help him in what becomes a race against time once the killer strikes again. Yet though we keep moving back and forth between the two - King is a master at keeping options open. Some of the stranger machinations of the plot have purpose later on, and if during the first half of the book I was enjoying it, but aware of it being high class schlock, by the second half I was gripped.

Impressively, King understands modern technology and incorporates it into this novel which feels genuine. Whereas a writer like Robert Harris (and his editors) struggle with even a basic understanding of modern tech, or younger writers might throw in emails and social media nonchalantly, King is both inventive and plausible. Under Debbie's Blue Umbrella (the marketing people have set up a site so it actually exists!) is a highly plausible private social network rather than a reworking of Facebook or whatever, whilst the electrical gadgetry that Brady uses is both possible, and neatly described. (Brady's invention he calls "Thing 2", enabling him to unlock cars with a few electronics from Radio Shack.) Whereas classic King sits in smalltown America, this is a novel of the small modern city - and deftly centres it in our modern world, of scarce jobs, mobile phones and (a highly plausible) boy band.

To say any more would be to provide real spoilers from a novel that is an excellent read. Whereas the King of the 70s and 80s used to invent rabid dogs, ghostly cars and firestarter children as a surrogate for America's malaise, the contemporary King doesn't need to - the horror is there in our murderous, abused children, their anger hardly fictional compared to the mass killers we see on the 24 hour rolling news. In the crowded world of crime fiction, King doesn't essentially add anything new, but brings his usual talents to bear on a compelling cat and mouse story. At first, the "love interest" of the 60 something Hodges seems contrived - a middle aged writers fantasy that, like in the Stieg Larsson books, or "Luther" sees the messed up investigator getting into bed with the first young woman he meets on the case - but even this becomes a key aspect of the plot. If the novel ends up a little conventional in its outcomes, its none the worse for that.

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