McGinnis: ‘Mercedes’ bends at the middle: King’s latest falls into cliché after promising startWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Stephen King is an excellent writer. Over a career that has spanned the past four decades, King has demonstrated an ability to combine fast-paced and exciting prose with memorable characters in a way that can power a story past any clichés it may contain. This is a very valuable trait for King in his new work, “Mr. Mercedes,” because holy cow does it come laden with clichés.
This is a story about a retired detective (Cliché No. 1) who is obsessed with the last case he couldn’t solve (Cliché No. 2) and is contemplating suicide (Cliché No. 3). The crime was committed by a psychopath who works as an ice cream man (Cliché No. 4) and taunts him in an game of cat and mouse (Cliché No. 5) daring the ex-cop to catch him before he commits his next crime (Cliché No. 6). Oh, the psycho is also racist, sexist and a mama’s boy (Clichés Nos. 7, 8 and 9).
In less sure hands, a story this old hat could be pretty laughable. But King’s writing elevates it past its fairly pedestrian set-up and carries the readers along on a wave of interest — up to a point. Sadly, about two-thirds of the way through, the load of the plot’s machinations begins to weigh things down, and the characters we’ve invested in start doing things we don’t believe, because they have to for the story to work. By the end, it’s all too much.
A shame. The opening scene is spectacular. Set on a misty morning as down-on-their-luck residents of a town congregate outside a job fair, unaware that tragedy looms. Readers know full well what is about to happen (we’ve read the dust jacket), but this is the rare case where that knowledge works totally in the story’s favor. The scene builds an ever-rising sense of dread as we meet and grow to care about individuals who will (probably) not live long into the sunrise.
After that harrowing scene, we settle down into more traditional modern thriller material. We meet the aforementioned retired detective, named Bill Hodges, who spends most of his days parked in front of the TV and eyeing his old gun with suspicious longing. He’s ready to end it all out of malaise and boredom when a letter arrives from the man who perpetrated the massacre at the beginning — “Mr. Mercedes,” as that’s the car he drove into the crowd — taunting him for his failure.
We get to know the killer much better than Hodges will. His name’s Brady, and in surroundings that were less well-worn, he’d be a much more fascinating villain. He still lives with and clearly has a suppressed Oedipus complex toward his mother. He’s a meticulous and smart psychopath (Clichés Nos. 10 and 11), but with enough quirks to stand out, and King gives the character a distinctive voice that lets us in on his plans while concealing just enough to keep the game going.
The problems arise as the story proceeds. As Hodges plows ahead in his one-man investigation, refusing to let his old pals on the force know or help (Cliché No. 12), we meet more characters who seem to fall into far too familiar roles to sound like real people.
We get the sister of the woman whose car Mr. Mercedes stole (even at Hodges’ advanced age, it’s little surprise she blossoms into a love interest). We get the kindly young man who helps around Hodges’ house and becomes his unwitting sidekick. (Because he’s an African-American teenager, we also get a bizarrely conceived trait where he occasionally speaks to the older, white detective in dialogue laden with “Massa” and “fo sho.” This is supposed to pass as an endearing sign of friendship, I guess, but comes across more as an odd and racially insensitive choice shoehorned in.)
As the story heads toward its climax, it becomes too much. We get characters making one bad choice too many, not because it feels like a natural thing to do, but because the story can’t continue unless they make that choice. (If you were being tracked by a killer who you knew had a way to unlock car doors, wouldn’t you check said car before getting in?) And it all slides together into a neat and tidy climax that doesn’t feel nearly as satisfying as the book seems to think it is.
Again, it’s a shame. King’s natural ability takes the reader quite a long way in this one, but in the end the machinations overwhelm the promise. This is billed as a departure for King — a crime thriller with not a poltergeist or possession in sight. I hope he continues to test these waters, as I’m sure that he has several great works in him if he keeps down that path. All we have here, though, are some fine writing and interesting creations who, in the end, just get lost in the shuffle (Cliché No. 13).