What do you get when a prolific writer, synonymous with the horror, suspense and science fiction genres, tries his hand at writing an old-fashioned hard-boiled detective novel? You get Mr Mercedes.
Set in an unnamed city in the American Midwest year 2009, Stephen King's latest features a retired detective, Kermit William 'Bill' Hodges, locked in a deadly cat-and-mouse pursuit with 28-year-old Brady Hartsfield, a perverted geek who, having run over a group of innocent job seekers in a stolen Mercedes in a premeditated killing spree, is on the loose and plotting more bloodletting. Eight people had died and 15 were injured in the incident. The novel begins when the Mercedes killer, as Hartsfield comes to be known, reaches out to the detective in a letter about a year after the incident, taunting and egging him to chat on a shadowy site called 'Under Debbie's Blue Umbrella'.
Hartsfield is King's most recent, and sickening manifestation of evil. King's ability to transport readers into the minds of characters great and small is one of the highlights of his craft. In Hartsfield, he sketches a brilliant portrait of a malevolent sociopath and a devious sadist – with a Norman Bates-esque 'mother complex' thrown in for good measure. Indeed, Hartsfield's ability to hide in plain sight and use his prowess with the Internet and IT to out-manoeuvre the law is far more chilling to a contemporary reader than the rattle of chains and creaking floorboards.
Hodges, the aged and rotund ex-gumshoe drawn willy-nilly into investigating the Mercedes multiple-murder case that had happened a year before he retired, is an unlikely but realistic hero. Hodges is a Luddite, technologically unsavvy, but relies on his intuition and old-school sleuthing to bait his nemesis.
Hodges's reflections on aging bring to mind Ralph Roberts, the geriatric protagonist of King's 1994 book, Insomnia . As Hodges struggles to figure out questions such as how the killer gained access to the killer Mercedes car, he finds an able aide in his neighbour Jerome, a wise-beyond-his-years African American teen.
The book, the first of a planned trilogy, is full of self-conscious references to the conventions of the detective novel genre – characters often take swipes at the traditional image of the sleuth and dialogues frequently refer to the drama of police procedure.
The narrative is firmly anchored in the realities of recent history. The 2008 downturn is its backdrop and Hartsfield's first victims are desperate jobseekers camping outside a job fair; the latter himself is a victim of the system and ekes out a living by juggling two jobs. King has spoken about Mr Mercedes being inspired by a true event about a woman driving her car into a McDonald's restaurant. He also told an interviewer that while he started writing the book much before the Boston Marathon bombings, Mr. Mercedes involves a terrorist plot which is "too creepily close for comfort".
Mr Mercedes is competently put together but somewhat predictably structured. The plot brings to mind the 1979 supernatural thriller The Dead Zone, which too featured a serial killer. While King's knack for vividly sketching characters and spinning a tight narrative shine through, in some instances, the novel seems to be a little formulaic with supporting characters typically "sleeping the big sleep" as the stakes get higher.
In essence, Mr Mercedes is a rewarding page-turner for fans of King and/or racy thrillers.