I should preface this review by admitting that Mr. Mercedes is the first Stephen King novel I have ever read, although I have seen Maximum Overdrive several times, as well as many of the other numerous film adaptations of King’s works. Aside from the author’s enormous popularity, I didn’t know much to begin with, but I quickly found myself immersed in the narrative, drawn in by King’s clean sentences and menacing atmosphere.
Vehicles play a prominent role in many of King’s stories, from the killer car in Christine, to the family’s refuge in Cujo, back to the self-aware, homicidal 18-wheelers of Maximum Overdrive. Perhaps in Stephen King’s world, guns don’t kill people – cars do. Aside from that flippant remark, cars hold a special place in the American mythical landscape, including the German-engineered machine in Mr. Mercedes. Cars represent the freedom of the open road, the rage of the traffic jam, the power of two tons of steel, and the vulnerability of what those two tons of steel can do to human flesh. Every symbol of American power – from the frontier, to the nuclear bomb, to the assault rifle and the SUV – is also a symbol of vulnerability for all those in its path.
In Mr. Mercedes, a fairly straightforward tale compared to King’s more supernatural thrillers, a man in a clown mask goes on a murderous rampage through a crowd of job-seekers, plowing down men, women, and a baby. The detective assigned fails to close the case before his mandatory retirement after 40 years on the job, and spends his empty days dozing in front of the television, reworking his unsolved mysteries, and contemplating suicide.
When the still-at-large perpetrator of the job fair massacre (dubbed “Mr. Mercedes” due to his choice of weapon) writes a long letter to the retired detective, he gives the old man a new lease on life. The ex-cop gets off his couch, teams up with others not ready to let the case go cold, and with new evidence gleaned from his contacts, goes in search of revenge.
Mr. Mercedes shifts back and forth between the perspective of the killer and the detective – while the policeman distinguishes himself by his humility and thirst for vengeance, the killer meanders between spewing bigotry, manipulating his retired adversary, and letting drop little truth-bombs from his childhood to help the reader comprehend the origin of such a sick individual.
Stephen King has created a classic gumshoe narrative with Mr. Mercedes, yet one that is consistent with many of his usual themes, including addiction, mechanical power, and the horror of human behavior. Those who have read more Stephen King than I (ergo, the entire American public) are invited to come to book club and tell me how wrong I am. Maybe afterwards, we can all watch that great classic of cinema, Maximum Overdrive.
Celebrate Halloween with the 7% Percent Book Club! We’ll be discussing Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King, on Monday, November 7th, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s third floor. You can find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.