Monday, 3 August 2015

Mr Mercedes, reviewed by Steven Savile

First up, confession time. There’s only us here, so I don’t mind being honest. It’s not as if you’ll tell anyone, will you? I didn’t think so. Okay, here it is, my deep dark secret—I don’t love Stephen King anymore. I used to. I can remember vividly when I first fell in for him. It was "Pet Semetery" and I was fourteen, living in Epsom and had just skipped lunch at school for a week, using the money my mum gave me to buy food to go to the bookshop in the Ashley Centre and buy the brand new paperback of "Pet Semetery". There was something incredibly illicit about our relationship. Most of our time together was under the covers, late at night when I was supposed to be asleep because it was a school night. I’d read a chapter and think, okay, I have to read a few more pages, just to get to a part that isn’t going to give me nightmares. It was only of those seminal moments in a young man’s development, reading horror stories by torchlight. I remember my next King novel, too, "Misery". The mathematically inclined amongst you will realize that there was a good four years lost there to things like football, cricket, tennis, rugby, snooker, boxing, basically anything that involved physical activity. I stopped reading.

It was a nine-hour coach journey down from Newcastle to Bristol that brought me back. Halfway, as we pulled into the motorway service station, bored out of my mind, batteries out on my Walkman, I went into the little shop and browsed their paperbacks, seeing "Misery" there and a new tape by The Alarm, "Change", so instead of buying food with the money mum had given me for the journey I bought the paperback and the cassette and the next five hours flew by in a sort of grim oh my god she can’t do that kind of way.

But I still didn’t go crazy for King, even though, two out of two he’d knocked it out of the park. I was always more of a fantasy and SF reader. That said, I remember getting "The Dark Half" because I’d forgotten to pick an alternative choice from the Book Club Associates catalogue and ended up with the Book of the Month. It was a lucky break as I devoured that book alone one weekend while Mum and Dave were away at the Climbing Club’s President’s Meet… I was supposed to meet up with the girlfriend in town but ended up being three hours late because I just had to know what happened next…

Three from three, you’d think I’d have chalked King up as my favourite novelist by now, but I was still more Terry Pratchett and David Eddings than I was King, Koontz and Herbet, though that transition was coming… and oddly it was King who suffered most in my transition to obsessive horror reader, mostly because I had the misfortune to pick up "Needful Things" next, and when the shop keeper rides off into the sky it’s just a big old bag of what the fuck? I’d really enjoyed so much of that book, but then that end? Okay, maybe I’d have better luck with "Tommyknockers", that big fat paperback was promising loads of thrills and scares on the shelf at Waterstones. Now, in part it’s bad timing, I’d just started reading Stephen Gallagher, Clive Barker, Mark Morris, James Herbert and more, some really excellent horror writers with my same British sensibilities, and part bad timing because King had obviously got some serious issues going on in his life, but the moment I reached that Coke Machine chasing a lead character down the road all I could think was why the fuck did he think this was a good idea? Seriously? It was awful. Hideous. I stopped reading there and then. My girlfriend (same one) kept going on about how good "Gerald’s Game" was, but I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to read it. I tried the Unedited version of "The Stand", sorry, I mean the Complete and Uncut, and while I loved part of it, the whole Captain Tripps and Trashcan – which always made me think of The Alarm song that it inspired – I couldn’t finish it because it just went on and on and on…

Now, I’d never give an author this many chances nowadays, but King bought a lot of faith thanks to those earlier books, and of course I went back and read "The Shining" and "Salem’s Lot" and "Firestarter" and "Carrie" and loved them all. He was on fire back then. But not now. I didn’t finish "Delores Claibourne", or "Insomnia" or "Bag of Bones", but I kept on buying his hardcovers because, well, I’d always bought his hardcovers. It was a link back to my youth and those amazing nights reading those first three books…

And I can chalk up more personal misses than hits now, "Dreamcatcher", "The Cell", "The Regulators" all ended up on the Did Not Finish pile. I didn’t finish "Duma Key" (but was enjoying it a lot. I can’t really remember why I put it down, but I never went back to it so I guess I wasn’t hooked). I didn’t finish "Lisey’s Story" either. In truth by this point I was buying the hardcovers pretty much because it was an annual ritual and I didn’t want to break the collection on the shelf, I wasn’t enjoying them. They were still winning awards and hitting the top of the bestsellers charts, and King was very much King again, though. There was a buzz about his stuff after the accident and the retirement, like we’d almost lost him so we better bloody cherish him.

Then I saw the video trailer for "Mr Mercedes" and for the first time in I don’t know how long I got excited about a King novel because it felt like it was going back to the obsessive quality of "Misery", a novel sans supernatural, which was scary as fuck and quite brilliant. That gave me hope. I mean, here was King, stripped of the safe fall back of spooky supernatural to simple gripping storytelling. The promise was his first hard-boiled detective novel. I don’t think it’s that, but it’s interesting territory, and not so long ago won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, so, all good promising things, right? Safe to get my hopes up?

The set-up is pretty straight forward, a burned out retired cop thinking about ending it all is being taunted by a mass murderer who drove a stolen car into a queue of desperate job seekers, killing eight people and wrecking the lives of several others. This feels like a pretty relevant, even political statement by King, echoing the hope with turns out to be false and drifts into hopelessness as that car wreaks havoc. It’s one of the most powerful opens I can remember because King has a gift when it comes to characterization – he can make us care in very few words. That’s a pretty ironic statement really, when you consider his modus operandi for years was to spend the opening 200 pages setting up the normal lives of his townsfolk before destroying them. In "Mr Mercedes" he only needs a couple of pages to make the reader care and watch with that sense of dread that comes along with the most effective of his horrors.

It’s no surprise the woman, Olive, who owned the stolen Mercedes, commits suicide. Indeed, as her tragic storyline unfurls and we can see the strings being manipulated around her it’s still tragically inevitable that a good person can’t cope with being part of something so horrific.

That opening set piece really is the best part of the book, what follows sags significantly as we move through alternating perspectives, sending time inside the head of the killer, Brady Hartsfield, and following the almost Hardy Boys-Nancy Drew team the old detective Bill Hodges finds as his allies.

A lot of the novel revolves around a dating site/social network – the blue umbrella – which seems like something out of the old Genie days as opposed to a more modern Facebook era and more than once I found myself smiling wryly in the wrong way as King’s obvious lack of tech-savvy threatened to trip him up. That’s the thing, like the old Clarke law 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic', you get the feeling that King kinda views this stuff as arcane and doesn’t really get how it all works, especially and crucially cell phones, which, given he’s now 67 isn’t entirely surprising. The tech world is developing so quickly it’s incredibly dangerous to set a novel using current tech knowing that it takes you 12 months to write then 12 months more through the editorial process prior to release what you’re calling state of the art will be close to obsolete by the time the book hits. There were several moments, especially around the convenient collapse of the cell phone network during the epic set-piece conclusion that just had me reaching up to pull out hair that has long since fallen out. A decade ago this novel wouldn’t have had any of these tech problems, indeed, had this been written around the time of "The Dark Half" I think it would have been another out-of-the-park homer.

But it was written now and is a thing of its time.

So if you strip away the tech weaknesses and instead focus on the humanity, that’s where the book is at its strongest and that’s territory King is very comfortable writing in. His killer, Brady Hartsfield, is a bit pathetic, filled with self-loathing and esteem issues which match up well with the notion that all acts of violence stem from a need to feel like you’re putting right some slight from youth. You can be personable, decent, nice even but inside there’s this festering need to show them (whoever they are) that you’re not a joke, that you are relevant, that you mean something, that they should know your name. So that loathing drives Brady on. His home life is equally tragic, his Oedipal relationship with his mother disturbing on so many levels, and doomed like the best Shakespearean tragedy. So on the one had, you have the great menace taunting the detective, seen through Bill Hodges eyes, and there Brady is the ultimate monster, sadistic, cold, cruel, and in charge, understanding the modern world in ways the old detective just doesn’t and ultimately is giving the washed up cop a reason for living, and on the other hand you have Brady as he sees himself, a loser striving to be relevant.

It’s good, genuinely, the strengths of the book are very much in the human relationships. King writes character very, very well, and he knows how to surprise the reader and keep those pages turning.

But as the plot is racing breathlessly towards its inevitable conclusion there was a moment when I couldn’t help but think: oh bugger, he’s going to screw it up by being Stephen King here. Brady’s planning on going out in a blaze of glory, targeting a concert – think One Direction or New Kids on the Block depending upon your age – and our heroes are racing to save the day. The set up is there for major tragedy, mass carnage, loss of life as the innocent kids suffer, dare I say typical horror fodder of the 80s and 90s and all that was wrong with a lot of those novels as it’s the cheap, obvious horror. There’s nothing big or clever about it. One reviewer I noticed described Brady as a terrorist, not a mass murderer, which struck me as interesting as an example of how the language of fear has changed since I started reading this stuff. Back in the 80s and 90s you’d never have considered this sort of lone-gunman mass murderer a terrorist, even if he is committing an act of terror. He’d always be a murderer. Of course, there was a timeliness to it, too, given the Boston Marathon bombing that was very much part of the public consciousness as the book came out, adding to that all-too-real feel that marks King at his best.

Mercifully, King showed incredible restraint, and that made the final scenes so much more powerful for me.

So, was it the best crime novel of the year, as the Edgar Award would have us believe? So subjective, but for me not remotely. It was populated with some comfortable, almost clichéd genre tropes, but that was its strength, too, as it felt like coming home to a comfortable old friend to share a few days companionship. Those clichés included a few shocking character choices which would normally lead to cries of ‘lazy writing’ but I think were more down to a deliberate restraint King was putting on himself, shying away from the grand horror for a more insidious undercurrent of this could happen to you and building up a relentless pace to drive the story to its conclusion. I could have lived without the epilogue, I have to say, but that’s personal preference, and the moment I realised it was part of a trilogy made a grim kind of sense, but such is life.

To sum up, let’s face it, in this modern world of connectivity, where technology is rapidly approaching magical omniscience lots of the worst stuff, the most frightening moments of "Mr Mercedes", are all too plausible.  I rather like this more restrained King, though the writing on display here is by no means 'classic King' and "Mr Mercedes" puts me in mind of the writer who conjured some of the most terrifying moments of my youth, like Annie Wilkes hobbling Paul Sheldon, Louis Creed waking up with muddy feet and that moment when Danny Glick comes to Mark Petrie’s window in "Salem’s Lot". Simple, effective, and genuinely horrifying. And that’s no bad thing.

But, if this was your first Stephen King, if you were some fourteen year old looking to curl up under the covers with a torch, would it be that kind of seminal "Pet Semetery" experience (he says, artfully sweeping back around full circle to the confession that opened up this now 2400 word essay) that breeds lifelong genre fans like "The Dead Zone", "Christine", and "It"?

Sadly, not.


Steven Savile has written for Doctor Who, Torchwood, Primeval, Stargate, Warhammer, Sherlock Holmes and writing as Alex Archer, Rogue Angel. He was a finalist for the People's Book Prize in the UK and has won the Lifeboat Foundation's Lifeboat to the Stars Award and the International Association of Media Tie-in Writer's Scribe Award. He wrote the story for the best-selling computer game Battlefield 3, which sold over 5 million copies on its week of release, and his novel Silver was one of the Top 30 best-selling novels of 2011 in the UK. He is coauthor, with Albert 'Prodigy' Johnson of H.N.I.C. Forthcoming releases include SUNFAIL from Akashic Books and Glass Town, the first in a new fantasy series, from St Martins Press.

He can be contacted via his website here.

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