When you are one of the world’s most successful authors, it can be a risky business switching from the genre in which you are best known. Some years ago, the crime writer James Patterson felt the desire to get out of his system three saccharine romantic novels that barely caused a ripple. It is, however, a different matter for Stephen King, who has long been the undisputed monarch of the horror thriller, but has a deep personal love for the crime genre. His latest book is not his first venture into that field, but it is (so far) his best.
Mr Mercedes is a tense, ticking-clock thriller that sets a burned-out cop against a demented mass murderer who is planning an act of carnage to match the one with which he started his criminal career. The opening of the novel is a tour de force, the kind of curtain raiser that King admirers relish. In a Midwestern city, crowds of unemployed, desperate people wait in frigid temperatures for the slim chance that they will be hired at a job fair. We meet two people in the queue, a down-on-his-luck young man and a mother who has been forced to bring her baby, which is coughing in the cold. Their characters are described with such vividness and warmth that we are in no doubt that these will be the protagonists of the book. But then a Mercedes suddenly appears — which subsequently proves to have been stolen — and with shocking suddenness, the driver ploughs the car into the crowd, reverses and drives over his victims again. Eight people are killed and fifteen wounded, among them the characters who we have assumed we will be following throughout the book. The car is abandoned and the killer escapes leaving no trace.
A year passes, and retired policeman Bill Hodges receives a deeply disturbing letter from the mysterious individual who lays claim to being the perpetrator of the act of random murder, and who tells Hodges that he is in the early stages of planning an even more gruesome attack. Hodges, still suffering guilt from being unable to crack the earlier case, finds himself drawn out of his unhappy retirement to engage in a battle of wits worthy of Holmes and Moriarty — or Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling.
Those who might be reluctant to follow Stephen King into an unfamiliar genre should not hesitate; all of the narrative skill that distinguishes his fantasy work is firmly in place here, including those shocking hints of what is to follow (‘One of the young men …. had been staring at Janice Cray – this was Keith Frias, whose left arm would shortly be torn from his body’), and the familiar orchestration of mounting tension shows the author’s usual command. And if the basic scenario is a familiar one, the characterisation is faultless. There is the depressive detective hero with an ever-present gun on his table, toying with the idea of suicide; similarly memorable is the terrifying psychopathic killer (with perhaps a little of the DNA of motel proprietor Norman Bates), living with his alcoholic mother in a house filled with secrets. Admittedly, we are reminded that crime fiction is not King’s default territory: a lengthy description of the horrors of daytime reality TV shows (which the suicidal Hodges glumly watches) outstays its welcome, and both hero and villain are cut from a very familiar cloth. But King aficionados will be riveted from the first explosion of violence to the final, equally seismic, climax. The writer’s fans won’t be complaining if he turns to crime again.