How many times have I fallen for this trick? A Stephen King novel opens with a vividly sketched scene, of ordinary and likeable people going about the business of their everyday lives, when disaster strikes, and someone dies.
Mr. Mercedes is no different. A job fair is planned and desperate job-hunters assemble throughout the evening to demonstrate their resilience and initiative to potential employers, when they appear first in line at opening.
Almost immediately, I am attached to the man who waits near a young woman with her snivelling baby. Though somewhat curmudgeonly, he allows her to use the sleeping bag he brought, to get warm temporarily and nurse her son. Almost immediately, I have a stake in the outcome.
But this is not my first Stephen King novel. Even as I am warming (literally) to the story of these marginalized folks, banding together to overcome adversity, I am warning myself to back off. I’m shaking my head, as if I can shake off the engagement. I remind myself that it’s likely they will die, in just a page or two.
And, something like that happens. Which is no longer remarkable (having read more than a dozen of his novels).
But what remains remarkable, beyond the fact that Stephen King can make me care in just a few pages, is that he can convince me to read on, after slightly breaking my heart. Again.
In this case, he does so by almost immediately directing my attention to another character who also is deeply incensed by these deaths: Bill Hodges.
“According to my research, during your time as a detective, you broke literally hundreds of cases, many of them the kind the press (who Ted Williams called the Knights of the Keyboard) terms ‘high profile.’ You have caught Killers and Robbery Gangs and Arsonists and Rapists. In one article (published to coincide with your Retirement Ceremony), your longtime partner (Det. 1st Grade Peter Huntley) described you as ‘a combination of by-the-book and intuitively brilliant.’”
In fact, Bill Hodges is more deeply troubled by this crime than any reader, because although he has broken hundreds of cases, he has been haunted for years by his inability to solve the case of the Mercedes Killer (whereas readers have just learned of the tragedy).
Readers, however, will soon be keenly interested in the Mercedes killer’s capture as well, for their own reasons. For in the broader context of the novel, which is only partly narrated from the perspective of Bill Hodges, readers have a direct eye on the Mercedes killer.
“Most people are fitted with Lead Boots when they are just little kids and have to wear them all their lives. These Lead Boots are called A CONSCIENCE. I have none, so I can soar high above the heads of the Normal Crowd.”
As unsympathetic as the Mercedes Killer is, the character of Bill Hodges is quintessential King, a good-hearted guy who no longer believes that being good-hearted is enough. His guilt weighs too heavily.
“Suicide proves guilt. He remembers Lieutenant Morrissey saying that, but Hodges himself has always had his doubts, and lately those doubts have been stronger than ever. What he knows now is that guilt isn’t the only reason people commit suicide.
Sometimes you can just get bored with afternoon TV.”
The Mercedes Killer reemerges in an attempt to goad Bill Hodges, poke at his sense of failure for not having solved the case.
Ironically (and Stephen King has a hyper-appreciation of irony) he goads Bill Hodges into reengaging with his determination to solve the crime.
Nonetheless, the conflict in the novel ebbs and flows. Sometimes the killer darts ahead, other times the detective enjoys a win. Sometimes, it’s a draw.
“He sits looking out the window, remembering, unaware that some of the waiters have begun to look at him uneasily—the overweight retiree sitting slumped in his seat like a robot with dead batteries.”
Everyone expects suspense in a Stephen King novel, and there is no lack of it in Mr. Mercedes. It’s a classic hunt story, from the initial scene in which the hunter is behind the wheel, and the victims are run down. Soon, the role of the hunter is transferred to the killer, who is giving chase to the flailing and retired detective. But then the role of hunter changes again, putting Bill Hodges behind the wheel. So, suspense: yes.
But what’s particularly fun in this novel are the sparks of humour. The dialogue is sharp and there are many reasons to chuckle, but then there are the moments in which King laughs at himself.
“’Creepy as hell. You ever see that TV movie about the clown in the sewer?’
Hodges shook his head. Later—only weeks before his retirement—he bought a DVD copy of the film, and Pete was right. The mask-face was very close to the face of Pennywise, the clown in the movie.”
These moments are bonuses, however. What wins my reader’s heart consistently with King is the focus on ordinary people seeking to do the right thing, the sense of struggle against mounting odds, the quiet but determined resilience, the fight against injustice.
[Tomorrow, thoughts on the second volume in the Bill Hodges’ trilogy, Finders Keepers, Wednesday End of Watch]
Which Stephen King novels have you read? Do you have a favourite?