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Review: Stephen King puts the pedal to the metal in 'Mr. Mercedes'

Published May 29, 2014

Stephen King's books usually teem with all manner of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggetty beasties. The supernatural and paranormal and fantastic — from Carrie's telekinesis to the psychic vampires of Dr. Sleep — have been hallmarks of much of his bestselling work.

But his latest novel, Mr. Mercedes, needs no otherworldly flourishes to create a memorable monster. Human beings can be more than monstrous enough.

The monster in this case is the title character. "Mr. Mercedes" is a grim nickname given by the media to someone who in 2009 stole a luxury car from an upscale neighborhood in the unnamed city where the book is set. The prologue describes how he drove it before dawn to a community center where hundreds of people were lined up for a job fair — and accelerated into the crowd. Eight people died, 15 were injured, and Mr. Mercedes got away, abandoning the car at a warehouse with its only link to him a bleach-wiped mask he had been wearing that reminds one police officer of "that TV movie about the clown in the sewer" (a wink to King's 1986 novel It that is as otherworldly as Mr. Mercedes gets).

The novel moves to the present with the crime still unsolved. One of the detectives who led the investigation, Bill Hodges, is now retired and divorced and struggling with boredom and depression, with too much junk food, junk TV and time alone with his late father's revolver.

Until, that is, the day he gets a letter in the mail. Its crazed punctuation is enough to count as criminal, but Hodges immediately realizes he's being taunted by Mr. Mercedes. He knows he really ought to turn the letter over to his old partner who's still on the force — but the thought of one last major collar is the only thing that has gotten him out of his recliner in ages. The letter ends with an invitation (or dare) to communicate with the killer at a website for private chats called Under Debbie's Blue Umbrella, and Hodges hopes he can turn that link into a trap.

It's no spoiler to tell you that we learn who Mr. Mercedes is not long after we read his letter to Hodges. Brady Hartfield is a nondescript youngish guy who works as an IT help tech and still lives with his mother. If you think that adds up to a nerdy stereotype, think again. The Mercedes massacre was not Brady's first foray into homicide, nor will it be his last — he has a closet full of plastic explosives and an itch to outdo himself. And he has a relationship with his alcoholic mother that makes Norman Bates look wholesome. He also has a second part-time job that's handy for spying on retired cops and their neighbors: driving an ice cream truck.

Mr. Mercedes takes on one of the classic crime novel forms, with alternate portions narrated from Hodges' and Brady's points of view as the retired detective races to uncover the killer's identity and figure out where he will strike next. Hodges can't turn to the usual police resources, so he comes to depend on two unlikely helpers. One is his neighbor Jerome, a personable, bright 17-year-old who's as much of a computer whiz as the bad guy. (Brady, who's a racist along with all of his other nasty traits, detests Jerome because he's a black kid whose nickname, Jerry, is "a white kid's name.") The other is Holly, the middle-aged niece of Olivia Trelawney, the woman who owned the fateful Mercedes. Despite her insistence that the car was locked and she had no idea how it was stolen, Olivia committed suicide after the massacre. Her niece is an emotionally stunted woman who, like Brady, still lives with an overbearing mother, but Holly has surprising reserves.

King may have left out the supernatural in Mr. Mercedes, but his gifts for creating thoroughly believable characters and thrumming suspense are in full play. He keeps raising the stakes and ratcheting up the violence, and just when you think everything is settled there's one spine-icing little turn on the very last page.

Propulsive, deeply creepy and at heart warmly humane, Mr. Mercedes is not really a departure from the rest of King's work. But if you really miss those ghoulies and ghosties, he'll have another novel out in November, a horror tale called Revival.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

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