King's Highway pt. 75: Mr. Mercedes

"In a don't-give-a-fuck world, he's about to become the ultimate don't-give-a-fucker."

The first I heard of Mr. Mercedes was in a YouTube video of an informal Q and A session with students at UMass Lowell. He described a "non-supernatural" story he'd just completed about a retired detective who begins to receive correspondence from the perpetrator of his biggest unsolved case.

At the time I saw that video I was either reading or had just finished From a Buick 8. In either his author's-afterword to that novel or when discussing Buick 8 in On Writing - I can't remember which - King mentioned drawing upon K.C. Constantine's series of "increasingly philosophical" detective novels for inspiration. I'd never heard of these, so I checked out a few of them after I finished my big King readthrough.

I enjoyed the ones I read, but there wasn't a whole lot of similarity between anything in them and Buick 8 except for the Pennsylvania setting. Fair enough - King never said Buick 8 was an homage to them or anything, just that they personally inspired him. But all of the above got mixed up in my imagination, and I'd formed the impression that Mr. Mercedes was going to be a Constantine-esque cat-and-mouse story between two guys on the same side of the retirement-age coin, working out the failures and successes of their respective careers.

I am not suggesting that King pulled a bait-and-switch; Mr. Mercedes is indeed how he described it in that UMass Lowell talk and elsewhere. But when I discovered that the antagonist was not a fellow retiree, it changed something for me. A story about a retired detective matching wits with a clichéd young domestic terrorist (not to mention a rather too familiar King antagonist) is all well and good, but I had trouble shaking this idea of a philosophical showdown between geezers on either side of the law, looking back on their lives / the same case over an equivalent distance but from different vantage points. Oh well.

Let me back up a little bit. Brady Hartsfield, the antagonist, is indeed as I described him up there, both a clichéd young domestic terrorist (he lives with his mother - and how! -, is a technological genius, and has a super-villain lair in the basement that he activates and de-activates by saying "Control!" or "Darkness!") and a clichéd King antagonist (with the kind of racial observations and hang-ups given to oh-so-many King villains over the years.) But I mean it less harshly than it perhaps sounds. 

Let me try and explain. Regarding the former, I believe there's something to the theory about the banality of evil, and it's probably to King's credit as an observer of human nature that he doesn't feel the need to over-distinguish Brady from his real-life equivalents, who are often all too clichéd themselves. Regarding the latter, I'm less forgiving; discovering a King antagonist shares the same cartoonish-racism of many other King antagonists is always an eyeroll. (As is discovering he has the same easy-to-identify-triggers-to-rage as every other one; I even wrote "EEEEEEEEEEEEE!" - i.e. the Crimsons King's narrative tic in Dark Tower 7 - in the margins of one section.) He's not written badly nor is it necessary for every character to reinvent the wheel; it's just less interesting to me.

That doesn't mean there's not some pretty writing around the character. The sequence describing how Brady's warped family situation came to be and the murder of his younger brother is riveting and greatly upsetting. (And serves to humanize the mother quite effectively.) As is this passage:

"Off you go, killers and killed alike, off you go into the universal null set that surrounds one lonely blue planet and all its mindlessly bustling citizens. Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That's all history is: scar tissue."

These moments from inside Brady's mind are well-crafted and go so much further than observations about the "whiteness" of certain black characters' names. Unfortunately, King is inconsistent, both in the quality of such observations and in the narrative voice. Near where the above passage appears is this reflection on the WTC terrorists:

"He thinks (without the slightest trace of irony) They spoiled it for the rest of us."

Is Brady making note of his own lack of irony? Probably not. Yet that is how it reads. I mean, why bother presenting things from someone's p.o.v. if you're just going to narrate over it like a Greek chorus? Or maybe I just can't stand when people point out the obvious. The irony of Brady's thinking is self-evident, or at least, one would hope it is.

More successfully and consistently characterized is Hodges. He's a solid character with a gratifying arc. Traditionally in these set-ups, the retired detective is introduced (as he is here) in a despondent state, prevented from utilizing those gifts which defined his previous life; it's more than common to read "And then so-and-so realized something odd... he was enjoying himself" in these sorts of stories. King doesn't bother dragging this out. I didn't write down the passage, but Hodges is described as smiling and singing to himself - and swearing off the daytime talk shows - almost immediately after receiving the first letter. So many times in other works, this becomes the (tired) point of the entire thing - the revitalization of the retired hunter once the hunted re-materializes: life defined by the hunt or something. Not here. King strikes this note only to subvert it as the story unfolds. Hodges pays a price for his revitalization - something that also happens often enough in other works, but what can I say, I think Hodges's arc is the strongest bit of the book.

And at the climax, Hodges is sidelined by a heart attack, necessitating the direct action of Jerome and Holly. I liked this. I felt the whole cross-cutting / stop-the-bomb section was a tad too reminiscent of the similar section from Insomnia, but it wasn't a dealbreaker.

The New York Times review of the novel makes a lot out of King's playing around with the conventions of the detective novel genre. The above speaks to that, but I don't feel it ultimately went quite as far as that reviewer (Megan Abbot) describes. (In a post-Lebowski world, even the departures from the genre-norm have been pretty well streamlined.)

What's weirder about that review is that it doesn't even mention King's intermittent Stepin Fetchit Tourettes in the mouth of Jerome. (A direct lift from the Riddley Walker character in the unpublished The Plant.) You'd figure this sort of thing would make the NYT very uncomfortable. I don't necessarily have a problem with a white author creating a black character who self-knowingly lapses into "Fo Sho Massa Hotches!" dialogue; it's easy enough to imagine a young black character taking the piss out of an old white character (or even an old black character, or whomever) in such a way. It's just kind of irritating to read, again, from the mind of Sai King. But no less, than Beaver's dialogue in Dreamcatcher or Trashmouth Tozier's in It. And probably coming from a similar place, i.e. King's playful interest in language.

Jerome is otherwise a pretty cool character and well-drawn. It's cringeworthy when King (via Hodges) describes him as "a young Barack Obama," but it's also easily believable that a man of Hodges age and temperament would characterize any young black male in one of two ways, with that being the positive one. Whether that was the reason or whether it's just more of King's viewing non-white characters through his self-described lens of "white liberal guilt" is perhaps immaterial.

It did lead me to tweet this in reply in King, though:

I doubt he'll even see that amidst the thousands of other responses, and I doubt even more that he'd take such advice. But man - it'd be nice to see this sort of thing disappear from King's books altogether.

Kevin Quigley had this to say about Jerome in his review:

"Jerome Robinson, King’s first major young black male character since 1986’s It, is far more defined by his youth and intelligence than his skin color, despite Brady Hartsfield’s internal racist tirades and Jerome’s own insistence on defining himself in occasional stereotypical terms. However, this latter feels less intrinsically racial than it does an homage to the Hawk character in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser detective novels."

I haven't read those Spenser novels, but that's an interesting association.

As for Holly, I felt there was a bit of quirkiness-overload once she became part of the Scooby gang, but she had a vitality to her that was much appreciated.

Final verdict: I can't say I count this among King's best or something that really needed to be written. Judged against his other works, I found it rather marginal; judged against summertime beach-towel fare, it's probably better-than-average.

As per usual, King turns some phrases here and there that really stayed with me. Here are two:

(Describing the dude on the Jerry Springer-type program Hodges is watching before receiving the letter from Brady:) "On his face is the half-smart grin of a cool dude in a loose mood. Dream job: lifetime disability."

(Brady's description of his dead mother:) "...just pounds of silent flesh hanging from bone coathangers."

As for my checklist:

Is the protagonist from Maine? No.
Does someone entertain thoughts of suicide? Yep.
Is there a psychic child? No.
Are plot events foreshadowed explicitly by a dead character/ dream character/ psychic? No.
Is there a big-ass storm at the end? No.
Is there a racist antagonist? Yep.
Is there a misogynist antagonist? Yep.
Is there a falsely-religious antagonist? No.
Is there telepathy? No.
Is there a wisecracking sidekick with repetitive catchphrases? Yes.
Are there epistolary sections? Yes. (And as always I don't feel the letter-writing voice is particularly successful, though some of Hodges' wind-ups via the Blue Umbrella are definitely chuckleworthy.)
Is info deliberately withheld between chapters/ sections to build page-turning suspense? Yes.
Does someone not give "shit one" or say "happy crappy?" Pg. 318: "Hodges no longer gives Shit One about Donald Davis."
Does someone imitate or engage in "mammy" dialogue/ reference Little Black Sambo? Man!
Is it a ridiculously enjoyable read? Sadly, no.

Where does it fit into my rankings?

Somewhere in there. Keep in mind I rather enjoy Rage and Blaze, but that's where it feels right to place it.


  1. I'd say I'm more positive than you on this book, but not to a meaningful degree; I enjoyed reading it, but would rank it fairly lowly.

    No King novel -- except maybe for "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" -- is without dynamite scenes, though, and I'm glad you called out that sequence in which we find out the sad history of Brady's brother. Rough stuff, and while it would be difficult to plausibly give someone like Brady a suitable origin story, that series of events comes pretty dang close.

    Yours is the first, and only, review I have read that has mentioned the racial stuff. Which really surprises me, just as it surprises you. Has King taken up such a vaunted place in our culture that things like that get a pass now? If so, it's a well-earned place, but still; that seems troubling. I don't personally feel as if anything King is up to here is actually racist in any way, and if anything I feel certain that he'd think it was the exact opposite of racist. And indeed it may be. It's just . . . such a tricky concept to get across. I often feel (when it comes to these sorts of weirdo verbal tics he gives some characters) that what's going on is that King has a movie playing in his head, and that he's just transcribing what the actors' dialogue sounds like. And sure enough, a good actor can sell a concept like this Jerome business. Prose sometimes can't, and I'd argue that in this book, it doesn't. Not entirely.

    But given the lack of reaction, maybe you and me are alone on an island on this subject.

    1. Well, at least we have each other for company on said island! I agree, tho, it's damn odd how no reviews ever seem to pick up on this.

      I agree, too, a good actor would be able to sell it.

      I look forward to your review.

    2. I just discovered this blog. I just finished "Mr. Mercedes". The Jerome Robinson character bothered me. I don't think King meant it maliciously but it just took me out out of the story.

    3. Thanks for the heads up - nice review. I agree, I don't think it was malicious, just... weird. Like you say, it takes you needlessly out of the story.

      I've had that Belzer book you reviewed right beneath your Mr. Mercedes review in queue for awhile.

    4. Cool! I think you might like the Belzer book if you're into looking behind the curtain. It's short but packed. Some conclusions are more strongly argued than others but that's true everywhere.