MH: Hi Craig, so here we are again to discuss our thoughts on King’s latest novel, Mr Mercedes. Mr Mercedes is a bit of a departure for King, being a straight-up detective novel about a retired cop who is attempting to identify the person responsible for a vehicular massacre. What did you think?
CHB: Yeah, that caught me by surprise – the genre departure. Initially I didn’t think much of the change, but on reflection it is a much straighter crime novel than anything else he’s done previously. I enjoyed it, it’s a brisk read – pretty effortless, but I think the news (that came out after publication) that it’s the first of a planned trilogy shows in the book. This is clearly the first chapter, the first beat for these characters, and there’s plenty more to come. I do like that fact, that even at this stage of his career, King’s prepared to challenge himself to write a trilogy (which is rare for him) and in a genre that isn’t his forte.
MH: Yeah, he recently wrote another crime novel, Joyland, as part of the Hard Case Crime series (I think that’s what it’s called), so perhaps he’s moving through a crime phase? He recently did a sci-fi phase with Under the Dome and 11.22.63. I have to say, I enjoyed Joyland a lot more than Mr Mercedes. While he did recently reveal that this is the first in a planned trilogy, I didn’t necessarily feel like I wanted more by the end. He can do crime, it’s an entertaining read, competently written, but it’s not much more than that.
CHB: I was thinking that, too. I’m not surprised by this novel though, as he talked a couple of years ago about wanting to write a book of this nature after finding out about a crime that was the direct inspiration for the crime that kicks the novel off, link here: http://www.greatwriterssteal.com/2014/01/24/gws-lecture-notes-stephen-kings-masterclass-at-umass-lowell/
But the ending of this book did make me wonder if it was going to branch into more King-like territory in the sequels.
MH: Let’s look at the characters. What did you think of the protagonist, Bill Hodges? I think this is where some of my issues with the novel lie, none of the characters seemed all that compelling to me. Bill is a guy who, at the outset, is suicidal because…he’s bored? And once that’s been dealt with (pretty swiftly) there’s not much more to him. He’s a workaholic but doesn’t have any interesting vices. He just seemed a bit flat, which would be forgivable if there was more going on in the story, but there isn’t.
CHB: There’s a lot of cliché here. A lot of familiar territory. But I think King’s good enough to be aware of that. The old retired cop who just can’t stay out of it. His interactions with Janey are classically noir – the whole femme fatale and so on. They acknowledge as characters how they’re toying with playing a role in a worn story, and nod to it a lot. but yes, they’re still slightly drawn, and that adds to the briskness of the read.
MH: But there’s almost something missing stylistically that makes that cliché seem more apparent. What did you think of the bad guy, Brady Hartfield? He’s a guy who, in the opening scene of the novel, drives a Mercedes into a crowd of people lining up to attend a job fair, killing 8 people. That opening scene actually sets the bar really high. It’s masterfully written, the way he gets you completely invested in these characters who are then suddenly subject to shocking violence. Anyway, Hartfield also felt a little bland to me. He spent most of the book not doing much except thinking about how much he hates everyone.
CHB: And I guess this is why it feels like Chapter One of a much larger story. There’s clearly more to Brady Hartfiled than this. The big moments were great – the opening scene, a couple of key points in the middle act, and the ending – but yes, there did feel like a lot of manoeuvring to just get the characters into positions where these big moments would occur. Which is odd for King, he normally invests the downtime with such great style, that you don’t really notice it. I was interested in Brady throughout, I liked the explorations into his personality, like the back and forth about his writing and how he would adopt certain styles to evade detection and not betray who he was, actually pretend to be a different type of psychopath – but they didn’t lead anywhere. At least, not in this book.
But to me, the bit I was most interested in, and wasn’t acknowledged at all, is the connection between the two characters. You don’t call your protagonist and antagonist Bill Hodges and Brady Hartfield – both BH – without good reason.
MH: I wasn’t sure that was actually indicating a tangible connection or if it was nothing more than a good-guy-bad-guy-different-sides-same-coin kind of thing. But as you say, maybe there’s a lot more to come in the next book and maybe I’m judging it too harshly. I did enjoy the ending, the big showdown was riveting, even if the outcome was never in doubt.
CHB: For me it seemed like something that promised more, given that King tends to be a bit blunt about his symbolism (John Coffey in The Green Mile for instance).
Yes, the plot offered a lot, but the characters didn’t quite support it. What did you think about the whole Blue Umbrella thing in the plot?
MH: I liked it, he needed a way for the characters to communicate and it was an elegant solution. For those who haven’t read the book, the plot kicks off when the Mercedes killer sends Bill a taunting letter that includes an invitation to meet him on an anonymous chatroom, Debbie’s Blue Umbrella. They are then able to taunt and threaten each other in real time! What did you think?
CHB: I have this thing about internet use in novels. I find it’s really hard to make it sound plausible or realistic. And this required a hell of a lot of exposition to explain how it worked and therefore how it would gear the interactions between Hartfield and Hodges. And for something that did take a lot of setting up – and featured heavily in the promotion for the novel – it petered out somewhat in impact and significance.
MH: It did lose a bit towards the end, but it had served its purpose to the plot by then. It served another purpose, not just giving them a place to talk, but giving Bill a motivation to approach Jerome, the 17 year old kid who did chores for him, for help, and that relationship is certainly a big part of the novel (and presumably the next one).
CHB: Yeah, I liked Jerome. I know a lot of reviews have talked about this interaction Jerome and Hodges have, with Jerome affecting the old southern slave patois in a way that some saw as insulting and out of date, but I think it pays toward King’s portrait of these characters sending up the roles they might’ve had back in the noir days. Jerome is clearly presented as highly intelligent and one of King’s wise-beyond-their-years teenagers that he loves to write. But I thought King pull his punch a bit here with Jerome, like he did with Abra in Doctor Sleep. There’s a moment where Jerome is clearly in jeopardy, and I couldn’t help but feel that thirty years ago King would have ramped up the stakes and the terror with this situation, but lately he seems to go out of his way to remove the innocents from harm, just like Abra.
MH: Agreed! Knowing that there was a sequel, and that Jerome was in it (King mentioned him by name when he announced it), really sucked the tension out. I knew he’d be fine, so the threat to him never really mattered. I don’t know if that counts as a spoiler, but it certainly made it harder for me to be invested in what happened to him. That said, he’s probably one of the more interesting characters in the book.
CHB: Yes, and his credibility as a character counted a lot in the finale, in that what matters to him as a character is at stake far more than what matters to Hodges.
MH: And you just got the sense that he was never going to lose what was at stake. It was more a question of how it would all play out.
CHB: Yes, totally. But still, that ending. Sting in the tail.
MH: Kind of a disappointing sting…
So Brady, who is in a coma, wakes up..is it 12 months later? Anyway, since I didn’t really like him as a bad guy, the idea of spending more time with him in the next book isn’t hugely appealing.
CHB: Well you’re not meant to enjoy spending time with the bad guy.
I’m kind of wondering which King villains you enjoy spending time with now. I’m worried.
But yes, though I don’t know, I get the feeling that Hartfield is going to get a bit more, uh, supervillainy in the future?
MH: Hahaha, there’s a certain fascinating quality that many of King’s villains have. You might not like spending time with Annie Wilkes, but she grips your attention in a way that Brady just doesn’t.
CHB: Yes, and there’s ones you want to read and ones you don’t. Though, you know, I preferred Hartfield to the True Knot. I liked that he was young. I liked that he was growing into his villainy. And realising just how messed up he was.
And now that his mother’s gone, and he’s been caught, well. He doesn’t need to pretend anymore.
MH: True. Now that you’ve referred to Doctor Sleep I just have to say again how much I loved that book, and maybe I’m judging this too harshly because it’s so different.
CHB: Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask. He’s been in a really good patch these last few years. Under the Dome, 11.22.63, The Wind Through the Keyhole, Doctor Sleep, and now this. Is this a bit of a let down?
MH: I think it is, but he’s also at a point where even his let downs are good. This is a good book, but it totally feels flat compared to his recent batch of titles. Even Joyland, which at least felt fresh and had an interesting setting.
CHB: Yes, and he’s another coming out later this year, Revival. And then apparently a book of short stories next year, followed by the sequel to Mr Mercedes. Nothing if not prolific.
That does actually remind me just how much I loved The Wind Through the Keyhole, as it did you and Doctor Sleep.
MH: Wind is a wonderful book, I really hope he revisits that universe again. I hadn’t heard about the book of short stories, but Revival is out in November, so only a few months. Sounds more like the kind of King novel I prefer. I actually don’t have a whole lot more to add about Mr Mercedes. It really is a fine read, but ultimately a little bland. I will definitely be there for the next one, though. Do you have anything more to say about Mr Mercedes?
CHB: Yes, I think we’ve said all we can, without going too far into more spoiler territory. Ultimately I’ll reserve a lot of judgement on it until I can see it in perspective of whole trilogy. But a solid three star novel for me.
MH: I’m only giving it two and a half, but I also reserve the right to revise that if the trilogy turns out to be mind-blowing as a whole!
CHB: Hah, definitely.
MH: Awesome! See you next time!
CHB: Until then.
Mark: 2 and a half stars
Craig: 3 stars