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 clich√© 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:

The Insta-Love between Hodges and Janey is just beyond ridiculous. A good looking forty-something woman is going to fall head over heels for an overweight 65 year old guy who had some indirect involvement in causing her sister’s suicide? This seemed so unbelievable that I couldn’t believe King had incorporated the tired old trope of the main character having to hook up with a hot woman in a crime thriller. This gets turned on it’s head when Janey gets killed, but that’s when you realize that the romance was only there to try and provide another justification for Hodges to keep his fight with Brady personal.

It’s the explosion that kills Janey that also makes Hodges’ actions indefensible for the rest of the book and blunt King’s effort to explain why it works out that way. Not spilling his guts to the cops immediately killed Hodges as a sympathetic character for me as well as straining credibility. I can’t believe that a guy is so bent on revenge for the murder of the true love he met a few days earlier that he’s willing to not tell every thing he knows about a mass murderer who just graduated to bombing and poses an immediate danger to an untold amount of people.

When Hodges does decide to call in the cavalry, King introduces an immense arms bust that has all the cops so distracted that Hodges decides there’s no point in finally revealing what he knows. I’m calling a huge stinky pile of bullshit on that. I don’t care how splashy an arrest was just made, if Hodges called his old partner and confesses that he’s been in contact with Mr. Mercedes, that the killer blew up his car and that Hodges knows his name, I’m pretty sure the cops could peel some people loose to look for a high-profile mass murderer who just detonated a bomb on a city street that killed someone the previous day.

It’s also inexplicable that Hodges wastes a huge amount of time trying to get in touch with one guy he bullshitted earlier after losing his number to a dead cell phone. King tries to turn this into tension by having Hodges stymied in his efforts to get through the arena automated phone system, but that completely ignores that HE HAS ANOTHER GODDAMN PHONE IN HIS HAND THAT HE IS USING! CALL 911 AND SAY THAT MR MERCEDES IS IN A CROWD WITH A BOMB AND THEY WILL GET IN TOUCH WITH ARENA SECURITY FOR SHIT’S SAKE!

Then King tries to play it that only Hodges, Jerome and Holly can go in after Brady because they’re worried that he’ll set off the bomb so maybe you could argue that’s why he didn’t call 911. If that’s the case, why was Hodges so frantically trying to reach arena security? Were they going to be able to do something the cops couldn’t?

There’s also a pretty big plot hole that made me wonder if King or an editor gave this more than one reread. Janey introduces Hodges to her family as a friend who worked for the area security company rather than the ex-cop who investigated the Mercedes killings and inadvertently helped cause her sister’s death. King even has Hodges telling them cop stories reframed as being from his security days. Yet after Janey’s death, none of them seem surprised to find out that he was a cop, and it‘s never mentioned again. That white lie should have blown up Hodges’ claims to the police that Janey’s death wasn’t connected to Mr. Mercedes.

The mild punishment that Hodges receives at the end of the book really seem to gloss over the idea that maybe if he would have turned over the letter and not tried to goad Brady into a mistake that maybe Janey wouldn't have been killed, and he might not have even attempted the arena bombing.

There’s another bit that’s not as glaring as these other problems, but it made me slightly nuts. The concert is supposed to be in an arena that holds 4000 people, and King writes this as if it’s an enormous concert filled with pre-teen girls. Yet, my local arena that hosts the kind of rock and pop acts of the same type mentioned in the book holds over 19,000 people and it’s considered on the smallish side. So it seems incongruous to have this fictional boy band breaking out a giant stage show for 4000 people, and everyone acting like it was the biggest concert since those damn dirty hippies stank up Woodstock. I don’t think One Direction would get out of bed to play a venue that size.

One other complaint. While I liked the character of Holly, I also found her to be extremely similar to the new breed who uses their various social disorders to fight crime like Monk, Lisbeth Salander or Sonya Cross on FX’s The Bridge

While I went into this one with high hopes and thought King crafted a creepy and plausible villain for an era where mass murder seems to be the new normal, I couldn’t believe that a supposedly respected former police man would behave like this. The effort to try to force the plot to make up for the gap between what a responsible person would do versus what Hodges does eventually made the whole thing a story that had me rolling my eyes or ready to yell in frustration.

Also posted at Goodreads.

1 comment:

  1. My problems with this book began with the completely ridiculous premise that the owner of the car stolen by Brady would be: (a) identified by the policy; and (b) made to feel guilty over having her car stolen. The cops knew from the bleached clown mask that this was a carefully pre-meditated act. Clearly, if Brady did not steal Mrs. Trelawney's car he would have stolen someone else's car. On what planet would anyone - let alone the cops - have wasted any time blaming the person whose car was stolen. This initial idiocy derailed the book from the beginning and never let up. This was a HUGE letdown after what I considered a very pleasant surprise in King's last book - Joyland. What a complete mess.