Much like last year’s Joyland (and even 2005's The Colorado Kid), Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes lies more with the mystery genre than horror one he is known for.
In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in some unknown, distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair (“1000 JOBS GUARANTEED!"). Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.
Months later, retired cop named Kermit “Bill” Hodges is still haunted by that unsolved crime. But realizing he can’t do much about, he now spends his life sitting in the La-Z-Boy watching Daytime TV and wondering when he’ll have the courage to pick-up the .38 Smith & Wesson he keeps next to the remote and blow his brains out. But a salvation of a sort comes to his rescue when the man responsible for the murders at the City Center sends him a letter. In the letter, Mr. Mercedes not only confesses to the crime but gloats over the accomplishment and reveals information only the killer would know. He even invites Hodges to join him on a social media site called Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella where killer further goads the retired detective and promises even more bloodshed.
The book is not a whodunit, because the reader is introduced to the killer, whose name is Brady Hartfield, a man in his late twenties who lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. On the outside, Brady seems normal, he holds down two jobs - at a local electronics store and a driver of the neighborhood ice cream truck. But the outside betrays a darker man inside, one filled with hate for almost everyone. Hartfield slowly draws Bill Hodges into his cat-and-mouse game, but the one thing Mr. Mercedes forgot was once a cop, always a cop and Bill is very capable of using what limited resources he has –like the neighbor boy Jerome and (eventually) Holly, who is a middle-aged, emotionally stunted woman. Together, the three make a highly unlikely bunch of heroes who must stop at nothing to prevent the slaughter of thousands.
Mr. Mercedes is billed as his first “hard-boiled detective tale” and just like the horror genre that made him famous, he does well here. He clearly understands what he’s doing, filling the novel with the hallmarks that make the genre appealing to many. But he updates it with modern technology all while winking at the audience that Hodges (and the fedora given him to by a friendly female) could be time shifted detective from the 1940’s nior of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to 21st Century of Michael Connolly and John Sanford.
As with all of King’s work, the characters come before the story and his ability to create some mean (a lot of the women here are a bit self-centered witches) characters with modern, identifiable problems continues to unabated. Not only do you feel for the man heroes and villain, but also the few souls lost at the beginning, which come to life fully realized and very three dimensional.