When a well-known author steps off his own well-worn path, he is bound to disappoint somebody. When that author is Stephen King, the reader will usually be charitable. To his legions of fans, he can do no wrong, which means the oddities and trope-heavy elements in “Mr. Mercedes” will be excused. King’s path is typically that spooky one in the woods; his newest novel even makes a small amusing reference to the clown Pennywise, terrifying star of his 1986 blockbuster “IT.” The path of his latest work is well-worn too, but by men much older than himself, and far less inventive.
“Mr. Mercedes” is a standard crime novel — a game of hide-and-seek between a mentally ill mass murderer and the archetypal retired cop. The titular killer drives a stolen Mercedes through a hapless crowd of job seekers in the first pages of the novel, and miraculously evades capture. Predictably, this killer gains cult status in hiding, becoming the one who got away to the police and the one to beat to the competitive mass killer. The perspective of the novel allows for an uncomfortably close relationship between the reader and a diseased mind, who presents a composite of the Boston bomber, the Isla Vista shooter and the Sandy Hook killer in his fixations and identities. The tension is textbook King, leading to a series of climactic scenes that the reader cannot walk away from, even though the formula is so worn at this point the belts are showing through the rubber.
The killer is gratingly racist and sexist, in a Norman Bates-esque relationship with his mother, and aspecting a quiet and respectful persona among normal people. The retired cop is every possible stereotype of a retired cop. King seems aware of how schlocky the whole thing must seem, even mentioning Philip Marlowe as the stock detective character and throwing out the name of Bruce Willis, who would doubtless play main character Hodges in the film, if only to get one more chance to grimace into the camera and say, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” Despite the self-awareness of the text, the thickness of tropes is tiresome and hurtfully unlike King.
The protagonist’s girlfriend bites the big one in a scene lifted straight out of “The Godfather.” The climax is strongly reminiscent of the Super Bowl bomb plot in Thomas Harris’ “Black Sunday.” King’s research shows itself embarrassingly in his outdated terminology: One woman’s hair is said to be “marcelled,” a term for a type of perm that was last popular in 1929 but figures large in the golden age of detective novels. Characters thinking about sex are wondering whether they’ll “get up to Dickens” later. Maybe that’s how they still express such things in King’s native Maine, but to everyone else it reads like Amish erotica.
As is becoming utterly mundane to King’s oeuvre, technology and the Internet are beguiling, slightly sinister means employed mostly by villains in “Mr. Mercedes.” King’s paranoia is not altogether unwarranted (if recent news about the NSA can be credited), but it is becoming dull from repetition in his works. Old man who hates and mistrusts technology writes old man characters who hate and mistrust technology. Riveting stuff, but it probably plays just fine to the guys who won’t notice the 1920s slang creeping into a book set in 2010.
King is a master of his craft. Whether a reader likes “Mr. Mercedes” or not, she will not be able to put it down until the end. Certainly the man has earned the right to explore any genre he wants; at this level of celebrity, King could write a series of recipes for baked beans, and it would sell like bacon-wrapped crack at every bookstore in the world. But “Mr. Mercedes” is a dim bulb on a string of bright lights that represents King’s long and formidable career. As Constant Readers, many people watch with consternation as King approaches 70 years of age in a hard life, hoping he will rage against the dying of the light.