Out of the pre-dawn fog it comes, like a 12-cylinder ghost, plowing through the desperate crowd of job seekers. The giant Mercedes, piloted by a freak in a clown mask, backs up and finishes the job, slaughtering eight innocent people for no reason. The perpetrator, never caught, has become known simply as Mr. Mercedes.
And so begins a gripping, twist-filled cat-and-mouse game that pits newly retired detective Bill Hodges, frustrated over the case he never solved, against Brady Hartsfield, aka the case Hodges never solved. Before he gets a taunting letter from Hartfield, Hodges has spent several months watching TV, eating his way to the verge of a heart attack and toying with whether to eat his late father’s revolver.
Truth out—I’m not a big fan of Stephen King. I’m not morally opposed to him or anything. I just don’t enjoy horror, his most common genre, and the few other works of his that weren’t horror just didn’t strike my fancy. This, however, is one of my favorite detective fiction books of all time.
The bulk of the book is made up of the chess game between Hodges and Hartsfield. Hartsfield, a twisted murderer that King somehow gets us to feel a little sorry for sometimes, makes the first move, but severely underestimates his opponent. Thinking he’ll be as easy to drive over the edge of suicide—hasn’t he been seriously considering it anyway—as the owner of the Mercedes he stole when he committed his heinous crime. But Hodges isn’t as far gone as even he thought he was, and he turns out to be a more than able adversary. With the help of an odd collection of sidekicks, including his teenage neighbor Jerome and the niece of the original owner of the murderous Mercedes, Hodges slowly closes in on Hartsfield, who is planning one last spectacular mass murder. Will they stop him? Guess you’ll have to read it and find out.
All the characters are fully realized and well-drawn, even the secondary and tertiary ones. Hodges and Hartfield are terrific, but I think my favorite is Holly, the self-acknowledged nut case. Her character is absolutely nothing like she appears when we first meet her. In the beginning, she seems to be a psychotic milquetoast driven to distraction by her overbearing mother, but by the end of the book, she turns out to be an amazingly complex, talented and likeable person.
This book has something for nearly everyone, but you’ll especially like it if you enjoy detective fiction. Not classic Sherlock Holmes whodunit detective fiction, but modern, noir, the-cop’s-tough-but-has-a-heart-of-gold detective fiction. King nails it. Fans of thrilling adventure novels would enjoy this as well. King screws up the tension to the point that it’s almost unbearable by the end.
Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King, is published by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. It is available from all major booksellers. It is the first part of the Bill Hodges Trilogy. The second, Finders Keepers, is also available, while the third, End of Watch, is expected in early 2016. You can rest assured I’ll read the other two books as soon as possible.