There are parts of Mr. Mercedes that are simply perfect, not only in the measure of Stephen King's prose and the flow of the story, but also in all that it evokes of the American suspense novels of our past. One scene in particular, when the title character, a pitiful, doomed lad named Brady Hartfield, dons a clown mask and drives a car into a crowd of people standing in line at a job fair, is as fine an opening as we've had in a novel that is supposed to make us sweat and keep us turning the pages. The characters in the scene, unemployed, bitter, slightly off-color, are all realistic, and the chapter plays out in the most engaging way. It's also a damned fine metaphor for life as we know it this year, with the poor being crushed by uncontrolled forces. We are riveted.
Then, there are other parts, when King tries so hard to lay on the pathos and "move" us that we're inclined to pull away. The book is filled with sad types, shut-ins and old timers and retirees who have nothing to do but watch afternoon television and contemplate suicide. The protagonist is a retired detective who feels like he blew it when he couldn't capture the alleged "Mr Mercedes," the driver of the vehicle. He mopes, he cradles his father's old pistol, and he mopes some more. Hodges is his name. Hodges used to be a drunk. Maybe he still is, I'm not sure. Hodges falls in love, but only so King can have the woman killed and make Hodges even more miserable.
As has often been a problem with King, his villain here is first rate, but the good guys, the heroes, the folks who set out to right the wrongs and squash the evil, are a bunch of bland stick figures cut out of other books, and not very good ones. As a creator of monsters, King is unparalleled. As a creator of heroes, he's somewhere below Danielle Steele. This mix of brilliance and mediocrity is jarring. How can such an inspired writer share the same mind with such a ham?
That's the basic failing of Mr. Mercedes, although there are other things to nitpick over, such as King's attempts at humor which seem as dated as an old Norman Lear comedy, big chunks of dialogue that sound nothing like human speech, and an interminable last act that is about as imaginative as a silent screen villain tying a sweet little girl to the railroad tracks. Hartfield, the only character of any substance in the story, is beset by a trio of misfits, including the morose detective, and it's not only unlikely that this ragtag group could ever catch him, but one secretly wishes otherwise; would it have been so bad for Hartfield to blow up a few places, or take out another crowd in his trusty sedan?
What almost keeps Mr. Mercedes percolating, however, is King's spirit and effort. King has gone on record saying this is a different type of novel for him, not an outright horror tale but more of a detective story. He dedicates it to James M. Cain, the author of such bareknuckled classics as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. There a couple of mentions of Philip Marlowe in the story, as if King can be hardboiled by association, and a few reviewers have been foolish enough to say King is exploring Raymond Chandler country here. Bullshit. King is too much of a contemporary mug to match the finesse and poetry of Chandler or Cain. At times King seems to be doing a fair imitation of Robert Parker, but to compare King to Chandler is like comparing Michael Buble to Charlie Parker.
King comes closer to emulating Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, than the great authors of the noir era, particularly in the creation of Brady Hartfield. Brady's as mother-obsessed as Norman Bates, possibly more so. Add the bitterness and cynicism of one of King's outcasts from The Stand or The Dead Zone, and just enough flashes of humanity to make Hartfield a real person, and you have a fictional heel that can stand alongside any of King's bad guys. Unfortunately, King also makes Hartfield a computer wizard, and includes too many scenes of Hodges and his crew trying to guess passwords and crack computer codes, stuff that is never interesting to read about. (King makes Hodges a computer illiterate, so we have to endure dozens of scenes where he seems utterly baffled by fairly basic things, which grows old quickly.)
The ending is too cute, and if you've read more than a few King novels, it's also predictable. Many may enjoy the story, and King's loyal readers will probably find it to be a good, fast moving read. I only wish King had allowed Hartfield to do more. As is, it's as if King created a perfect homemade bomb and then failed to set it off. Who knew? King is a bomb tease....