MR. MERCEDES – A Step Down in Quality for Stephen King REVIEW
In case you’ve missed it Stephen King has been on something of a tear lately. Starting with Cell, the kind of raw slab of B movie horror King hadn’t indulged in for a long while, nearly every book King has put out has been uncannily good. Lisey’s Story and Duma Key were both revealing, ultimately tragic meditations on family and art. 11/22/63 and Under The Dome were the kind of blockbuster gripping reads that King made his name on; horrific fantasy rooted in strong character work, (even if Under The Dome fumbled the ball at the ten yard line). Full Dark No Stars, is simply one of the meanest things he’s ever written and easily one of the five best books of his career. His smaller personal work, like the strange fable like eighth entry in The Dark Tower series and the disarmingly sweet Joyland, were just as satisfying. Even a project as seemingly misconceived as Doctor Sleep, King’s belated sequel to The Shining, ended up a surprising home run. Serving as a showcase for some of his most personal work in its heartfelt portrait of AA as well as a prime example of King’s love of playing with language (no popular author loves words for their own sake quite as much); and that was before it morphed into a story in which Danny Torrance battled the world’s first NC-17 Sailor Moon villain.
Unfortunately if Mr. Mercedes doesn’t quite stop King’s remarkable run of late period work in its tracks it comes uncomfortably close. It’s not terrible but it’s easily the weakest novel King has released since From a Buick 8. Mr. Mercedes follows a retired cop who receives a taunting letter from a supposedly inactive serial killer, goading the cop to uncover his identity. Clues are perused, purpose is found, a band of fearless allies formed, the usual stuff.
Mr. Mercedes starts strong, with an early morning massacre at a job fair that King renders with his trademark ghastly detail and working class sympathy. A prime King set piece that showcases his trademark skill at rupturing the ordinary with the horrific. In all fairness Mr. Mercedes also ends strong with a tense final hundred pages that picks up a great deal of steam. It’s what’s in between those two points wherein the problem lies.
With its non supernatural horror and psychotic POV character, Mr. Mercedes recalls the late period work of Robert Bloch, one of King’s primary influences. Unfortunately I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the name that popped into my head far more often while I read Mr. Mercedes was Dean Koontz. With its slack pacing, lack of surprise, preoccupation with sexual deviancy, “woman in fridge” plot point, and characters who are simultaneously disappointingly flat and bizarrely off model, Mr. Mercedes lacks only a Golden Retriever in touch with the supernatural to pass for one of the lesser works of Messrs Koontz. Simply put this is not King’s best work.
Mr. Mercedes is not a total loss, though only a beat involving a misbegotten hamburger patty has King’s signature, “didn’t see that one coming” punch. As mentioned, the last act picks up a fair amount of momentum and the late focus on a supporting character lends some much needed investment and eccentricity to the book.
On the whole I am confident that Mr. Mercedes will be nothing more than a road bump in the stretch of remarkably rich late period work that King has been producing, even if I am less than overjoyed at the announcement that he plans to revisit these characters over the course of a trilogy. Only the most constant of Constant Readers should pick it up, the rest can wait for Mass Market.