The dedication page of Stephen King ’s latest novel reads:
“Thinking of James M. Cain
“They threw me off the hay truck about noon . . . ”
The reference to Cain and his most famous novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” hints at the nature of the story to come. “Mr. Mercedes” is rooted, firmly and affectionately, in the classic noir tradition and contains none of the horrors, hauntings and supernatural phenomena so prevalent in King’s enormous body of work. The result is a straightforward, tightly plotted crime novel that retains that essential, instantly recognizable flavor that has distinguished King’s fiction for more than 40 years.
The story begins with a prologue set in an unnamed Midwestern city in the spring of 2009. A crowd of desperate job seekers, displaced by the ongoing recession, has lined up outside the building where a massive job fair is scheduled. Matters take a horrific turn when a gray Mercedes sedan emerges from the early-morning fog, plowing deliberately into the crowd, killing eight and leaving many others critically injured.
This unsettling set piece jump-starts the narrative and offers a portrait in miniature of King’s characteristic virtues: the very specific sense of time and place, the precisely rendered atmosphere of impending violence and — most centrally — the unerring sense of character. These marginalized job hunters, victims of an economic collapse and a crazed mass murderer, are credible and deeply sympathetic. They appear in only a handful of pages, but they leave an indelible mark on the story that follows.
Jumping ahead several months, King introduces his aging hero, Bill Hodges, a recently retired homicide detective who tried — and failed — to close the case of the Mercedes Killer. Divorced, depressed and without the sense of purpose that once kept him going, he spends his time eating junk food, watching daytime television and idly playing with a Smith & Wesson revolver.
He is adrift in a state of pre-suicidal despair when a letter, apparently written by the killer, arrives on his doorstep. Filled with lies, inside information and largely misleading clues, the letter is intended to push the vulnerable Hodges one step closer to suicide.
Instead, it has the opposite effect, spurring him toward a solitary, strictly unofficial investigation.
Having met the detective, we meet the murderer. Brady Hartsfield is an anonymous, almost invisible young man whose troubled past includes fratricide and a highly sexualized relationship with his alcoholic mother. The Mercedes massacre has awakened something dormant in Hartsfield.
He has developed a passion for the primal satisfactions of murder, a passion that can only escalate. Inspired in part by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he searches for a suitable new target, one that involves a large number of casualties and will satisfy his evolving capacity for destruction. He picks a good one.
The bulk of the narrative moves smoothly back and forth between a killer planning a major atrocity and the retired detective determined to stop him. Their stories come to us in a spare, present-tense prose that puts the reader directly at the edge of unfolding events. Hartsfield moves toward his private apocalypse in a state of steadily increasing isolation, while Hodges, invested with a renewed sense of purpose, makes his way back into the human community. In the course of his search for Hartsfield, he encounters unexpected romance and equally unexpected loss. (Loss is a constant in King’s work. People we come to care about suffer and die with disturbing regularity.)
Hodges also acquires an unlikely pair of assistants to guide him through the shifting landscape of modern technology, which plays a significant role in unraveling the novel’s assorted mysteries.
Jerome Robinson is a 17-year-old neighbor of the detective’s and an intellectual prodigy. Holly Gibney is a 40-something woman suffering from OCD and severe social anxiety. Beneath the damaged exterior she presents to the world lies a woman with hidden resources and surprising talents. Her journey from abject helplessness to a measure of independence is one of the novel’s most emotionally satisfying elements.
On one level, “Mr. Mercedes” is an expertly crafted example of the classic race-against-the-clock thriller. On another, it is a novel of depth and character enriched throughout by the grace notes King provides in such seemingly effortless profusion. It is a rich, resonant, exceptionally readable accomplishment by a man who can write in whatever genre he chooses. James M. Cain, who knew a thing or two about this sort of story, would probably have agreed.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By Stephen King
Scribner. 448 pp. $30.