The Bill Hodges Trilogy, Book 1
Scribner • 2014 • 448 pages
A Novel Critique
We open on desperation. It’s 2009 and things can’t get any worse. We are in the wee hours, waiting for the next day’s Job Fair; by dawn, the City Center will be teeming with out-of-work people frantic for a job. We meet a few of them, and Stephen King’s gift for characterization is effortless here, painting a young man and the young mother he meets with sure, precise strokes. Just as we begin to grow comfortable with these basically good, kind people, the anonymous Mercedes rams in from nowhere, laying murder in its wake. In the world of Mr. Mercedes, things can always get worse.
This brutal beginning gives way to the shaky mental state of retired police detective Kermit William Hodges, blindly watching television he hates and drinking, his father’s service revolver at hand. Sometimes it finds its way into his mouth. Hodges is a man at the end of his tether, holed up in his home and trying to adjust to a life without purpose (here his first name is important, with its echoes of hermit.) One of his biggest regrets as a cop is never having been able to find the man responsible for all those deaths at the City Center the year before; the man actually driving the car, Mr. Mercedes, had escaped without a trace. He might have stayed escaped forever, too, until Hodges receives a letter from the murderer: Dear Detective Hodges, it says, I have to tell you how much fun it was.
The letter, designed to push Hodges further into his spiral of depression, has the opposite effect. Though Mr. Mercedes states very clearly that he has no interest in killing again, Hodges’ detective instincts are immediately on alert. Which is good, because Mr. Mercedes absolutely plans on killing again. In a way, he already has.
Here the book takes one of its most clever turns. We expect to follow Hodges’ investigation, his frustrations and – hopefully – eventual capture of the madman who wrote the letter. But almost immediately, we are plunged into the world of Brady Hartsfield: Mr. Mercedes himself. One of King’s best tricks is introducing important characters through the eyes of secondary and tertiary characters, and it works here to great effect. We see him interacting with people, being social and funny, even charming, before we delve more deeply into the darkness at his core. Nailing down Brady’s psychosis is difficult, and to King’s credit, he doesn’t really attempt it. Is Brady evil? Is he crazy? Maybe, to both. He plans evil acts, but doesn’t carry through with most of them. Sometimes he cares if he gets caught, sometimes he doesn’t. It would be easy to say that he’s an agent of pure chaos, but that’s not exactly true; sometimes he has reasons for doing the awful things he does, and sometimes he doesn’t.
King has tackled insanity before. While someone like The Dead Zone’s Frank Dodd passed for “normal” while he committed his series of murders, we never got much of a peek into his internal life. Annie Wilkes (Misery) operated from a baseline of craziness; it was all a matter of degrees with her. Norman Daniels (Rose Madder) gradually deteriorated mentally, but King’s exploration of him tended to go over the top, some silly sequences undercutting the more brutal aspects of his lunacy. Brady is a new sort of character for King, one who questions whether he’s crazy but doesn’t seem interested in the answer. When his plan for murdering a dog goes awry, he simply incorporates the terrible outcome into his almost monotonous existence. Brady is fascinating because he’s very nearly ordinary, and though we are rightly appalled by the atrocities he envisions and commits, we find his thought processes and weird mental leaps unnervingly easy to follow.
Throughout all this, we remain thoroughly involved in Hodges’ life and his ongoing investigation of Mr. Mercedes. If Brady is a new sort of character for King, we slip into Hodges’ world as easily as we would old slippers. In recent years, King has found much fertile ground in the character of the aging man struggling to find purpose. Mike Noonan (Bag of Bones), Edgar Freemantle (Duma Key), and even Dan Torrance (Doctor Sleep), all attempting to move beyond past traumas, find new ways to define their lives Ö and all do so with the help of younger women. Where Freemantle’s daughter Ilsa and Torrance’s friend Abra provide support and help to hone talents, Noonan’s love interest Mattie is more of a direct antecedent to Mr. Mercedes’ Janey Patterson. (Interestingly, at forty-four, Janey is older than Mike Noonan was in Bag of Bones; the older King’s protagonists grow, the older the “younger” woman can be.) King has grown increasingly more comfortable with adult love and sex as he’s gotten older; here, the relationship between Hodges and Janey is unforced and downright cozy to watch develop. That the romantic angle isn’t the only one portended by Mattie and Mike’s in Bag of Bones (and here, we also see echoes of Duma Key) is a little disheartening. While a character as complex as Janey Patterson can’t be dismissed as a female plot point used to goad the male protagonist into action, King has dipped into this well a few times, and not just recently: ’Salem’s Lot, The Stand, Firestarter, and Cell all utilized this trope to one degree or another.
Hodges’ ad hoc backup team is equally interesting. While the character of Holly has echoes of Lisey’s Story’s Amanda, she’s a lot more self-aware and technologically savvy. Jerome Robinson, King’s first major young black male character since 1986’s It, is far more defined by his youth and intelligence than his skin color, despite Brady Hartsfield’s internal racist tirades and Jerome’s own insistence on defining himself in occasional stereotypical terms. However, this latter feels less intrinsically racial than it does an homage to the Hawk character in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser detective novels.
Just as King has grown more comfortable with romance in recent years, so has he become more confident in exploring technology in more balanced terms. Throughout most of his early- and mid-career, a mistrust of machines and technology defined King as a storyteller. Early works like “Trucks,” “The Mangler,” and Christine explored the horrors of machinery out of human control. Later, longer works like The Tommyknockersand The Waste Lands offered more nuanced looks at the way people interact with technology that they don't understand. “Everything’s Eventual” and “Ur” looked at the destructive capabilities of new technology, where Cell could be read as a treatise on the destructive possibilities of mass communication. This all seemed to change in King’s novella collection, Full Dark, No Stars, in which characters used GPS devices and discussed Twitter with no ill effects. In Mr. Mercedes, for the first time in a novel, King’s characters use technology as their personalities dictate. Good guys use computers and iPads as helpful tools; bad guys cyberstalk and blow things up. There are computer experts on both sides. While one couldn’t go so far as to call Mr. Mercedes a technothriller, tech and gadgets are more prominent here than ever before, and hold no innate malevolence.
In his long career, Stephen King has never written a book like Mr. Mercedes. There’s some precedent: the investigation in the center of The Dead Zone, for instance, or the cat-and-mouse pursuit in Rose Madder. But King sets Mr. Mercedes off in a number of ways, especially in his choice to tell the story almost entirely in present tense (while making sure to set the novel in the recent past), underscoring the book’s urgency. The book is also set far from Stephen King Country; while the locales are somewhat vague, we seem to be in or near Cleveland. King purposefully positions this novel at a remove from his other books: both Christineand It are discussed, not as events that have happened, but as movies his characters have seen. Notably, where King spent some time in the early 2000s exploring the concept of inconclusive endings (Cell, From a Buick 8, The Colorado Kid, The Dark Tower), Mr. Mercedes is packed with conclusions and solutions, eventually becoming almost a meta-commentary on King’s earlier experimental finales. From the senseless violence of the prologue, to the immediate leap into Hodges’ pursuit, to the almost unbearably tense finale, the pace never slows; removed from all hints of traditional horror and the supernatural, Mr. Mercedes is Stephen King’s first pure suspense novel.