My reading, reviewing and ranking is running out of time, with just three of the nominees for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel checked off… and they are neck and neck and neck, to boot.
It’s not getting any easier. As the clock ticks down to Wednesday’s big reveal at the Edgars Banquet in NYC, Stephen King – master of the horror genre among other literary achievements – is now on board with his detective novel, Mr. Mercedes. It’s a classic for the genre, but feels fresh, thanks to King’s spin.
The book opens with the victims. Down-on-his-luck Augie Odenkirk has queued up late one evening for a jobs fair that doesn’t open till the next morning… but he’s bound and determined to be one of the lucky ones. He’s in line next to the even sadder Janice Cray and her baby. The crowd swells. And then the artful King begins to build suspense with an outcry from the within the mob, identifying the source of the voice as “… Keith Frias, whose left arm would shortly be torn from his body.” Indeed it would, by the madman driving a stolen gray Mercedes. And this is King’s strength – to portray a scene, a short scene, really, and introduce the people there and make the reader care about Augie and Janice and her baby Patti, and then to drop inescapable horror into the midst of them. Thus is our killer introduced – through his impact on his victims.
Now fast forward to retired Detective Bill Hodges. He and his partner Pete had tried and failed to apprehend Mr. Mercedes. The crime scene reveals the bad guy to be smart and evil, with a wickedly twisted sense of humor. Hodges is the classic washed-up detective, lonely, overweight, watching too much TV and eyeing his gun, haunted by crimes unsolved. The bright spot in his life is not friends or family, but Jerome, the African-American teen who cuts his lawn.
Then one day Hodges receives a letter from Mr. Mercedes, taunting him and suggesting that Hodges would be better off dead. But instead of feeding Hodges’ sense of failure, the letter intrigues him. We see the detective Hodges had been: a smart and intuitive problem-solver. And thus begins the cat and mouse game. But who is the cat? And who is the mouse?
King reveals the identity of Mr. Mercedes early on, and Brady Hartsfield is truly sick (in both senses of the word). Brady works by day at a discount computer store “geek squad,” drives an ice cream truck in the afternoon and spends his evenings in a basement lair filled with explosives and computer gadgetry. He’s a 28-year old virgin (unless you count the many times his mom has helped ease his “headache” by fondling something a little farther south) who killed his little brother, murdered eight people and maimed countless more with a stolen car, drove the car’s owner to suicide, and is entertaining himself by doing the same to Det. Hodges prior to committing some final unspecified heinous suicidal act of mayhem.
King stays true to the genre as Hodges decides to solve the crime himself, enlists his Harvard-bound lawn boy as his new partner, taps into his contacts for intel, and starts hitting the streets even as he engages Brady in an online private chat room. The only thing missing is the love interest… oh, wait, here she is! Janey Patterson is the sister of the woman who owned the Mercedes Brady stole; the woman who killed herself out of guilt for leaving her keys in the car that was used in the vehicular massacre. Or at least that’s what Bill Hodges thought at the time. Now that he’s met Janey and gained a new perspective on her sister Olivia, he realizes that he and his partner jumped to the easy conclusion. His regret only ramps up his determination to bring the killer to justice.
But enough synopsizing. King’s writing is flawless, and he escalates the suspense masterfully. There’s not a wasted paragraph nor clunky plot hole to be found. (Unlike his recent Revival. Enough said.) The characters are great, particularly Janey’s cousin Holly, who starts out a compulsive, mother-pecked bundle of nerves and through sheer grit, becomes a hero. Hodges’ rebirth into a man of action through the application of romance is a breath of fresh air. Especially good news is that Mr. Mercedes is evidently the first book in a planned trilogy, so I’m looking forward to more of Hodges, Jerome and Holly. (Next up: Finders Keepers.)
How does King’s novel stack up against such stiff competition as Cop Town, The Final Silence, and Saints of the Shadow Bible? No doubt about it – it’s #1.