Stephen King is having fun with Mr Mercedes – you can tell that. The renowned author tackles the detective-thriller with his latest novel, ticking-off genre tropes as he goes along. The book follows retired detective Hodges, a man who has lost meaning since he left the police force. However, he is given a new lease of life when a mass killer in an unsolved case resurfaces and begins taunting him. Fearing that he will strike again, Hodges starts his own unofficial investigation to capture him and bring him to justice.
King’s touch here is deft, and Mr Mercedes is a real page turner. It’s clear that King is a fan of thrillers and that he wanted to pack in as many of the genre’s elements as possible. We have the taunting killer, the over-the-hill detective, the fast-talking sidekick and the love interest, all converging in a ticking clock scenario before the killer strikes again. King knows these are cliches, and he tackles them head-on, referencing the likes of CSI and The Wire in the process. We live in a world where even the most ambivalent people have an understanding of these conventions, but King weaves them into his story in a way that makes them feel necessary rather than tired.
While detective Bill Hodges is a character lifted straight from the pages of the literary potboiler, the book’s killer, Brady Hartfield is ripped from our newspapers. He’s an everyday mass killer, under the belief that he is justified in killing because somehow society has wronged him. King is holding a mirror up to today’s culture, showing us that a right to self entitlement and publicity has caused many of the numerous violent atrocities in recent years. This adds an extra layer to Mr Mercedes’ narrative – you know you’re reading fiction, but there’s something very real hidden within King’s pages.
Stephen King is one of our all-time great writers. As a novelist he manages to deliver populist writing with a skill that lifts it beyond its genre conventions. Horror, drama, science fiction and now the detective novel, Stephen King knows how to write novels that loiter in the mind and seep into the subconscious. It’s a talent that very few have, and that few will ever have. That’s why every new King work feels essential, especially when he steps out of his comfort zone, tackling a new form of writing at a time when he could be resting on his literary laurels.