Say this for Stephen King: He’s so good at killing off characters that you tend to feel bad even for the worst baddies when they go, adding a kind of complexity to even his most grisly moments. A portion of a limb here, some vomit over on the living room couch. Not a fun way to expire, and nothing you’d wish on anyone, no matter how terrible they are.
Both of those scenes turn up in “Mr. Mercedes,” King’s latest novel which commences with what the promotional material trumpets as a “tour de force’’ opening. A long line of people stand outside a job fair at dawn; a woman is waiting with her baby; a guy helps her change the baby; and someone shows up in a Mercedes and starts running people down, killing eight.
The passage perhaps fails to live up to the hype, but like many pieces of the book it will feel familiar to King fans. Sadly the book as a whole will not.
From the dramatic start, we cut to the living room of retired cop Bill Hodges as he suffers from depression and passes his day watching Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, and Judge Judy, while popping his father’s gun in his mouth and lazily contemplating suicide. A gifted African-American high school student named Jerome keeps up Hodges’s spirits as best he can, and does his yard work.
You might think now that we’ll spend the rest of the book tracking down the Mercedes killer, but King is after something different. We learn in the next section that the killer is Brady Hartsfield, a roving computer fixer who also has a job as the local ice cream man and lives with his mother. Brady likes to think of how he might get Hodges — who retired with the Mercedes killer case unsolved — to kill himself, or perhaps how he might commit some bigger, legacy-making crime.
Having revealed the killer’s identify so early it’s apparent that “Mr. Mercedes” is intended as a character study about the banality of evil. But it falls short.
For starters, King complicates matters by having everyone in “Mr. Mercedes” essentially talk alike in a patois littered with references to Turner Classic Movies, songs from the 1960s, and an awful smattering of what one supposes King thinks is how “kids speak today.”
King tries to differentiate Brady by making him ever broader and ever more angry and offensive. All nonwhites are hated; racial slurs abound; females get the objectification treatment.
Details that hold grave meaning lose impact just like the characters do through lazy and humdrum reoccurrence. Some details — like Hodges’s tendency to leave his cellphone in his car’s glove compartment — are repeated over and over again, so that it becomes overwhelmingly clear that such details are not only a reflection of character but will later feature hugely in plot twists.
Generally fans justifiably think of King as a prose stylist. But here the language tends toward the flat or just misses — we are told about Hartsfield: “Everybody likes the ice cream man.”
The one example of language derring-do comes from Jerome, a likable character who sometimes purposely adopts the persona of an African-American caricature a la Archie Bunker. He is depicted as bright kid, prone to satire. While in pursuit of their man, Jerome says to Hodges, “Only you is Sherlock! I is Doctah Watson!”
The book would perhaps have been better if it had done more with Jerome. King has always written children well, and that’s true in “Mr. Mercedes,” but that’s a tangential narrative concern at best.
There’s a story here, but because it is King you want there to be more. And it’s not as if there is no suspense; you are curious about how it will all work out. That’s something that can’t be said for every book, or even most. “Mr. Mercedes” may have looked great as it was outlined, but it just can’t seem to make the leap off the page.