Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.
That quote should give you an idea of how dark this book gets. The book jacket tells how it starts: a random act of violence by a killer who is never caught. The massacre happens in the first chapter, and in true Stephen King fashion he foreshadows what’s going to happen, introduces you to the victims, makes them very sympathetic and likable, and then kills them.
The first murder then becomes the background noise for the rest of the book. Don’t expect a play-by-play of the event, with flashbacks from the survivors and all the blood and gore described in loving details. Mr. Mercedes is all about the chase, with the two main characters using the original murder in their own way to inject some kind of meaning in their lives.
The main part of the story picks up several months later. The investigating officer has retired, and is idly thinking about suicide. Regardless of what the book jacket says, the unsolved murder of eight people isn’t what has Bill Hodges testing out his father’s old revolver. Instead it’s the endless days of mind-numbing TV, gaining weight from snack food, and looking forward to a life without any purpose now that he’s no longer a cop. So when he receives a letter from the anonymous killer, taunting him about the still-open crime and suggesting that he just go ahead and end it all now, it has the exact opposite effect that the killer intended. The letter pisses him off enough to start his own completely off-the-books investigation. Never mind that the legal thing to do would be to hand the letter – evidence of a crime – off to the current police force, he’s keeping this one for himself. It’s a motive that wears a little thin the deeper he gets into the investigation, and the more people around him are at risk, but Retired Detective Hodges is on this.
On the other side of the story is the killer. Despite the carefree-but-crazy tone of his letter to Hodges, Brady Hartfield is a careful, highly intelligent psychopath, the kind who’s great at blending in as, y’know, that nice guy who runs the ice-cream truck. Brad-somebody. Oddly enough, he doesn’t have the usual brain tumor or a history of beatings by a drunken/crazy-religious parent, the things that tend to crop up with Stephen King villains. His family was unlucky, and he’s been on the receiving end of some amazingly bad parenting choices. Other than that, you just have the subtle combination of intelligence, boredom, and the feeling that he’s due a level of attention from the world that he’s just not getting. And his biggest thrill wasn’t the massacre, much as he enjoyed that. It was being able to drive someone else to suicide over it. That represented real power to him, and he gets the story in motion by trying to do it again. I have to admit that Brady’s chapters were my favorite parts of the book. With Hodges, I kept waiting for the retired police officer to be found out by his former co-workers, or for something horrible to happen to someone close to him. With Brady I was hooked by just how twisted and dismissive he is with everyone and everything, including his own life. And of course King has his usual talent to find something the tiniest bit human about even his most horrible characters. (Although it says something about Brady that his unbelievably messed-up relationship with his mother is the only place where you can find even a glimmer of humanity. That doesn’t last.)
The main part of the book is a straight-up crime drama, where we alternate between Hodges’s point of view and Brady’s so we can bite our nails from how close they get to one another over the course of the mystery. The two main characters plot their moves like a chess match, sending anonymous messages trying to goad each other into doing something stupid. Hodges picks up some surprising cohorts for his investigation; I found myself grinning in places at how unlikely and fun it all was. There’s also some romance, a couple of deaths I didn’t expect (and some I was expecting that didn’t happen), the occasional nod and a wink at other Stephen King stories (he has characters reference two Stephen King movies in the space of three pages. Stephen, settle down.), and the usual parade of eccentric characters and awful relatives. (What is it with King and relatives? I’ve noticed that in his stories since Anne in Tommyknockers. If I was related to him in any way I’d be awfully self-conscious by now.)
The ending was…well it was fast. The last fifty pages flew by with me getting more stressed every time I turned a page, then suddenly it was done and oh look, here’s the epilogue. Definitely more of a resolution than the endings of some of King’s other books, although he still had to throw in a cinematic flourish on the last page where you almost expect to see the title, “The End…or IS it?”. Maybe a little hokey, but it’s Stephen King, so he can get away with that.
King has always been good at combing through the things that frighten him and then working those elements into his books: brain tumors, substance abuse, rabid dogs, (shudder) clowns. Here, he seems to be mining his experience with getting mowed down by a large vehicle in 1999. And instead of a story about supernatural powers or aliens or demons, King decided to focus on the person, and the craziness that might be smiling at us every day when we call IT, or buy ice cream. We’ve all seen the news stories of cars crashing into crowded markets (or in King’s case, himself while walking along a lonely road), and usually the perpetrator was confused, or clumsy, or incapacitated somehow. In Mr. Mercedes, we get to explore exactly what kind of person it would take to do that sort of thing on purpose.