IN THE early hours in a nameless, broken and bankrupt Midwestern city, a middle-aged man is talking to a young girl with a baby as they wait in a long queue for a job fair that promises a regular pay packet for the first 1,000 applicants.
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The girl can’t afford to pay anyone to look after her baby, so she has brought her along and is struggling to nurse the infant under the contemptuous looks of the fellow unemployed.
The middle-aged man, Augie Odenkirk, offers his sleeping bag for privacy and begins thinking that perhaps if they pose as a couple it might increase the chances of Janice getting a job. The Constant Reader only gets to spend eight pages with Augie and Janice, but it’s enough time to peer through the dirty, smudged window into a couple of lives ruined by the American recession. You get to thinking about the hardscrabble lives of the millions of people on the periphery of the American dream, but then you are suddenly distracted by the headlights of a blue Mercedes-Benz SL500 that ploughs at high speed into the queue: “He started to raise his head to see what was happening, and a huge black tyre ate up his vision. He felt the woman’s hand grip his forearm. He had time to hope the baby was still sleeping. Then time ran out.”
Cars have run more frequently through the fiction of Stephen King than killer clowns or vampires. There was the red Plymouth Fury in Christine, the Buick in From A Buick 8, the black limousine in The Regulators, and then, in real life, there was the van that almost killed him in 1999. There was even a critical essay by Linda C Badley entitled: Love And Death In The American Car: Stephen King’s Auto-Erotic Horror. So it’s not surprising that he should choose a luxury car as the murder weapon for a disturbed killer called Brady Hartfield who on that rainy morning kills eight people, including Augie, Janice and her baby, and injures 15 more.
Yet unlike Christine, where the car was possessed and had ghosts in the back seats, the horror to be found in Mr Mercedes is all the more disturbing for being stripped of any supernatural elements. Mr Mercedes is as straight a novel as King has written for a number of years which is both its strength and weakness.
It is, effectively, a straightforward crime novel in which a retired detective, Bill Hodges, is sent a taunting letter from “The Mercedes Killer”, the perpetrator of the multiple murder he had been unable to close before the mandatory end of his career. Hodges is suicidal, as many retired police officers are when faced with the life of daytime TV that lies beyond the badge. The killer knows this only to well and wants to reel Hodge back from the comfort of oblivion – playing lollypop with his service revolver – and instead torture him by committing another atrocity that the detective cannot prevent.
The strength of the novel is King’s characterisation. He’s always been precise at pinning down the reality of blue-collar lives and the struggle of old age, and Hodges is entertaining company as he discovers a late-life romance with the sister of the owner of the stolen Mercedes and co-opts two curious characters to assist in the legwork on the new case. The climax is a well-handled, old-fashioned, page-flicking race against time as Mr Mercedes threatens to bomb a pop concert. At this point, few writers would have the confidence to introduce a well-timed medical emergency into the mix.
But King’s problem is his own high standards. Anyone who has read A Good Marriage, his novella about a wife who discovers she is married to a serial killer, is aware of the heights of tension, dread and fear to which his prose is capable of ascending, and the detective who appears in the story’s final pages is crying out for his own novel.
By comparison, Mr Mercedes, is an entertaining, engaging ride to the midway point. You enjoy the journey and the view but you can’t help feeling disappointed that you are not going all the way to the top. Yet, like King’s best work, it still contains disturbing images that linger, and Brady Hartfield’s quasi-incestuous relationship with his alcoholic mother and the dark family secret that binds the two together is one few readers will forget. n