Mr. Mercedes

By Stephen King

(Scribner, $30, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

Stephen King has had an amazing career as a writer, with a phenomenal 50-plus international best-seller list to his credit. Most of us have read at least one, or seen a movie based on one, or are watching the TV miniseries “Under the Dome.” Some may dismiss him as a writer of horror stories, but many praise his gifts as a storyteller and author of imaginative fiction, often the kind that scares the living daylights out of its readers, and his nonfiction memoir/guide, “On Writing,” is a valuable book for writers and readers alike. King’s honors include the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Many of his books are set in Maine, where he lives with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.

What is this book about?

I interviewed Stephen King for The Courant last year, and he told me then that his forthcoming novel, “Mr. Mercedes,” would make people think it was based on the Boston Marathon bombings, but in fact he had already written it before that horrific event occurred. But this novel does indeed involve a mad bomber, one Brady Hartsfield, a deeply insane young man who lives with his abusive alcoholic mom and is bent on committing evil acts. He starts relatively small: deliberately running his stolen Mercedes into a crowd of forlorn job seekers, killing some and wounding many more. But Brady has bigger plans for thousands more victims. Who can stop him? Perhaps a depressed retired cop, Bill Hodges, who gets threatening letters from Brady and sets out to prevent further mayhem, working with some unusual helpers.

Why you’ll like it:

This is not one of King’s patented supernatural tales, though the evil at its heart is far from normal.  King is a personal fan of gritty crime stories, and that is the genre in which “Mr. Mercedes” has parked itself. So you don’t have to believe that crazed shape-shifting clown demons lurk in the sewer to be chilled and thrilled by this one: the killer here is all too human. The plot follows a favorite path of this author: a regular-guy hero pairs up with a few intrepid souls to figure out, find and write the finale for a very bad man. A well-tuned Mercedes offers a smooth ride; so does this novel.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “King is clearly having fun, and so are we…For the first half of the novel, King tickles our anxieties, his detective engaging in a classic cat-and-mouse game with the killer. But you can feel him wriggling against the hard-boiled tradition, shaking the hinges. Soon enough, in ways large and small, he rejects and replaces the genre’s creakiest devices…But it’s the larger genre deviations that make Mr. Mercedes feel so fresh. At their purest, hard-boiled novels are fatalistic, offering a Manichaean view of humanity. For King, however, dark humor extends beyond the investigator’s standard one-liners, reflecting a larger worldview. Killers and detectives make mistakes all the time…and coincidences play a far greater role than fate. Mr. Mercedes is a universe both ruled by a playful, occasionally cruel god and populated by characters all of whom have their reasons. One man can do only so much.”

Says Booklist:  “King’s interest in crime fiction was evident from his work for the Hard Case Crime imprint—The Colorado Kid (2005) and Joyland (2013)—but this is the most straight-up mystery-thriller of his career. Retired Detective Bill Hodges is overweight, directionless, and toying with the idea of ending it all when he receives a jeering letter from the Mercedes Killer, who ran down 23 people with a stolen car but evaded Hodges’ capture. With the help of a 17-year-old neighbor and one victim’s sister (who, in proper gumshoe style, Hodges quickly beds), Hodges begins to play cat-and-mouse with the killer through a chat site called Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella. Hodges’ POV alternates with that of the troubled murderer, a Norman Bates–like ice-cream-truck driver named Brady Hartfield. Both Hodges and Hartfield make mistakes, big ones, leaving this a compelling, small-scale slugfest that plays out in cheery suburban settings. This exists outside of the usual Kingverse (Pennywise the Clown is referred to as fictive); add that to the atypical present-tense prose, and this feels pretty darn fresh. Big, smashing climax, too. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: No need to rev the engine here; this baby will rocket itself out of libraries with a loud squeal of the tires. –

Says the Associated Press: “Classic Stephen King. Creepy, yet realistic characters that get under your skin and stay there, a compelling story that twists and turns at breakneck speed, and delightful prose that, once again, proves that one of America’s greatest natural storytellers is also one of its finest writers.”

Library Journal says: Bill Hodges is bumping around, barely registering his retirement, when a maniac in a stolen Mercedes repeatedly drives into a line of unemployed folks waiting in the gray dawn of a gray Midwestern city for a job fair to open. Eight people are killed and 15 injured. Hodges immediately enlists two allies to help him find the killer, who so loved his little taste of death that he’s planning to blow up thousands. The novel, described as King’s first hard-boiled detective tale, has an unsettling ripped-from-the-headlines feel, though the author has said that he started work on it before the Boston Marathon tragedy.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “In his latest suspenser, the prolific King returns to the theme of the scary car—except this one has a scary driver who’s as loony but logical unto himself as old Jack Torrance from The Shining.  It’s an utterly American setup: Over here is a line of dispirited people waiting to get into a job fair, and over there is a psycho licking his chops at the easy target they present; he aims a car into the crowd and mows down a bunch of innocents, killing eight and hurting many more. The car isn’t his. The malice most certainly is, and it’s up to world-weary ex-cop Bill Hodges to pull himself up from depression and figure out the identity of the author of that heinous act. That author offers help: He sends sometimes-taunting, sometimes-sympathy-courting notes explaining his actions.  . . . With a cadre of investigators in tow, Hodges sets out to avert what is certain to be an even greater trauma, for the object of his cat-and-mouse quest has much larger ambitions, this time involving a fireworks show worthy of Fight Club.  . . . King’s familiar themes are all here: There’s craziness in spades and plenty of alcohol and even a carnival . . . It’s nicely dark, never predictable and altogether entertaining.”

When is it available?

“Mr. Mercedes” is waiting for passengers at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour, Blue Hills, Camp Field and Dwight branches and will also be at the Albany and Goodwin branches.

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