Saturday, June 21, 2014

Failing the Driving Test

Mr. Mercedes
by Stephen King

2 out of 5 blue umbrellas

Warning! Some Stephen King fans (Of which I am one.) may be angered by this review and feel the need to tell me one or more of the following:

1) I missed the point.
2) I haven’t written a best selling book and therefore have no right to be critical of someone who has.
3) I should quit being so nitpicky and just relax for gosh’s sake!
4) It’s called FICTION, not REALITY, idiot!
5) I should burn in hell for all eternity for daring to impugn the honor of their favoritest author ever and this super awesome book!

So to save us all a lot of aggravation, be aware that I’m going to be calling out Uncle Stevie for the what I consider to be the failings of this one. If you can’t handle reading someone being critical of an author or book you like and feel the need to make a comment in the spirit of what I’ve outlined above, I urge you to instead go find a review that liked the book instead of enlightening me as to how mortally offended you are that my opinion doesn’t match yours. 

And now back to your regularly scheduled book review of Mr. Mercedes….

In the midst of the economic meltdown going on in 2009 a crowd of desperate people looking for work are spending the night lined up outside the doors of a job fair so that they can be first in line when it opens. In the wee hours a maniac wearing a clown mask and driving a Mercedes suddenly plows into the crowd killing 8 people and injuring many more. 

A year later retired cop Bill Hodges is spending his retirement watching crappy afternoon TV shows as he occasionally looks down the barrel of a revolver. Hodges was the primary detective on the mass murder at the job fair, and his failure to catch the driver is one of his biggest regrets. When he receives a taunting letter from Mr. Mercedes, Hodges decides to pursue the killer himself rather than informing the police. Hodges is soon locked in a deadly battle of wits with the Mercedes killer who is a brilliant but troubled young man named Brady Hartfield.

This is a departure from King’s typical supernatural stories because it’s strictly a crime thriller of the type you’d expect more from somebody like a John Sandford than the Master of Horror. (It also made me wonder why he didn’t do something more like this for his Hard Case Crime offerings.) There’s even an indication made that this was not taking place in the extensive King multiverse when someone makes a comment about how the clown mask worn by Mr. Mercedes reminds him of a TV movie featuring a killer clown lurking in sewers which goes against the usual flow when even his newer books like 11/22/63 acknowledge It as being part of the same world.

In the early stages I was excited about the prospect of King doing something off his usual beaten track, but there was a couple of major problems and a lot of minor details that left me more irritated than entertained. 

First and foremost is the issue that runs through the whole book in that Hodges knows he’s dealing with someone willing and capable of engaging in wholesale slaughter yet never seems to consider what twisting the tail of a rabid dog could do. Plus, if a thriller is going to set up some kind of mano e mano contest between it’s hero and villain then it needs to figure out some way to provide believable reasons as to why the fight has to remain between the two of them.

Even though King goes to considerable efforts to try and rationalize why Hodges feels like he has to go after Mr. Mercedes without involving the cops, the results have varying degrees of success. When things start going sideways, and it’s made very plain what kind of danger Brady poses not only to Hodges but to other innocent people, to have Hodges continue to feel justified in not telling everything he knows to the cop makes him seem reckless and oblivious to the consequences even as King pays some lip service to the guilt that the retired cop is feeling.

This could have worked better if he had played up the angle that Hodges had become an obsessive Ahab chasing his personal white whale, but King tries to keep his main character as a likable white knight. That gets increasingly hard to buy into over the course of the book. It’s made clear by the supporting characters that assist him and willingly lie and break the law to help him without a second thought that we’re supposed to be rooting for Hodges, and that King wants us to think of him as a genuinely good person. By the time that the plot has been twisted into a pretzel with the effort to try and keep the fight between Brady and Hodges without making Hodges look criminally negligent, it’s increasingly hard to not be completely frustrated with him. This is especially bad at a climatic moment of the book. 

That’s all I can say without spoilers, but take the failure of Hodges actions and motivations, add in a plot hole, a glaring mistake by King and the biggest cliché in crime thrillers and it adds up to a book that feels like a wasted opportunity.

You can read more about these problems after the jump, but there will be extensive SPOILERS:

Crossing the Border

by Lawrence Block

3 out of 5 professional gamblers would bet on this book.

Madonna warned us how dangerous it was to keep pushing your love over the borderline….

Lawrence Block books have been the spine of the Hard Case Crime line, and Borderline shows his pulp/porn roots off in all their glory by reprinting one of his old short novels originally titled Border Lust written under a pseudonym along with three short stories from the same era.

In El Paso, Texas tourists looking for sleazy kicks cross the border to Juarez, Mexico. A professional gambler plays poker, a divorcee with a critical case of hot pants is looking for kicks, a down-on-her luck beatnik (a/k/a damn, dirty hippie) winds up working a sex show and a budding serial killer prowls for new victims. 

This is a solid little piece of pulp with an edgy nastiness to it, like popping a piece of candy in your mouth and finding out it was actually a hunk of broken glass. It’s also filled with enough graphic sex scenes to make a porn star blush. Add in the some brutal murders and it’s obvious that Block was operating squarely at the intersection of Sex & Crime that was where these kinds of old paperbacks lived. However, talent shines through and Block made all of the characters feel interesting and real including a nice piece of work getting inside in the head of his sicko killer.

It also reminded me a lot of Small Town, a book Block wrote about a group of New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11, in the way that it blends someone looking for kinky thrills stirring up other characters and adding in a serial killer. Pulp in one era is a respected novel by a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers Association in another.

Two of the short ones, The Burning Fury and A Fire At Night, are crime stories that don’t do anything spectacular but again show that Block can probably crank out a good piece of writing in his sleep. 

Stag Party Girl is a longer mystery in which private detective Ed London, hired to protect a groom from a jealous ex-girlfriend before his wedding, investigates the murder of a woman killed in shocking fashion right in the middle of the bachelor party. The resolution of the mystery seems far-fetched, and London is a pretty typical PI character for the most part. But there’s something in the smaller moments here when the detective is talking to people that seem like Block was figuring out a style he’d later use for his great Matt Scudder character. It’s almost like London is Matt’s ancient ancestor.

I enjoyed the book as a whole, but it’s definitely of its time and genre. If you like old school pulp and/or are a big fan of Block then it’s worth a read.

Also posted on Goodreads.