Killer on the Road

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King (2014): The uberprolific Stephen King tries his hand at a non-supernatural mystery thriller this time out. It’s pretty good. It’s also reminiscent of some of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder mysteries in its cast of characters, but not in an overpoweringly odd way.

In an unnamed Ohio city which could be either Cleveland or Cincinatti (or even Columbus), 62-year-old retired police detective Bill Hodges increasingly finds himself contemplating suicide. But then a spree killer he didn’t catch before his retirement six months earlier sends him a letter taunting him. And we’re off.

The killer has new plans in mind; Hodges finds himself both reinvigorated and haunted by the belief that he and his partner screwed up during their investigation of the person the press has dubbed ‘The Mercedes Killer.’

Hodges is very much a quintessential King protagonist, one of those flawed, grey knights going up against the Darkness. King supplements him with a couple of interesting partners in investigation and a few better-than-normal plot twists. King also gets in a lengthy scene that seems like an update of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, complete with an overt reference to that novel of the Great Depression.

The novel’s greatest achievement is its antagonist, the Mercedes Killer. He’s tech-savvy and fairly clever. But he’s also fallible, over-confident, and occasionally just plain lucky. He’s certainly a more believeable killer than all the legions of hyperintelligent aesthetes spawned by Hannibal Lecter. And the novel evokes a certain level of pity for him. It’s a much better portrait of a killer than we got in We Have to Talk About Kevin, for instance, but as it’s Stephen King and not a literary writer, I doubt the mainstream press will shower praise upon him for psychological verisimilitude.

There are a few minor missteps. I’m pretty sure I could live the rest of my life without reading another sex scene written by Stephen King (your results may vary). But the novel rings true in enough cases — whether in its depiction of how a well-meant police investigation can go wrong because of the smallest of understandable but incorrect assumptions, or in its mirrored portrait of not one but two intensely screwed up families and the mentally damaged children that have resulted — to make it a tense, worthwhile summer read. Recommended.

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