Mr Mercedes, by Stephen King, Hodder & Stoughton RRP£20/Scribner RRP$30, 496 pages
When you are one of the world’s most successful authors, it can be a risky business switching from the genre in which you are best known. Stephen King, who has for decades been the undisputed monarch of the horror thriller, has a deep love for the crime genre. His latest book is not his first venture into that field but it is his best.
Mr Mercedes is a tense, ticking-clock thriller that sets a burnt-out cop against a demented mass murderer who is planning an act of carnage. The opening of the novel is a tour de force – the kind of curtain-raiser that King admirers will relish. In a Midwestern city, crowds of unemployed, desperate people wait in frigid temperatures for the slim chance that they will be hired at a job fair. We meet two people in the queue, a down-on-his-luck young man and a mother who has been forced to bring her baby, coughing in the cold. But then a Mercedes suddenly appears, and with shocking suddenness, the driver ploughs the car into the crowd, reverses and drives over his victims again. Eight people are killed, among them the two characters we assumed we would be following throughout. The car is abandoned and the killer escapes, leaving no trace.
A year passes, and retired policeman Bill Hodges receives a deeply disturbing letter from a mysterious individual who lays claim to being the perpetrator, and who tells Hodges that he is in the early stages of planning another gruesome attack. Hodges, still suffering guilt from being unable to crack the earlier case, finds himself drawn out of an unhappy retirement to engage in a battle of wits worthy of Holmes and Moriarty – or Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling.
Those who might be reluctant to follow King into an unfamiliar genre should not hesitate; all the narrative skill that distinguishes his fantasy work is firmly in place here, while the orchestration of mounting tension shows the author’s usual command.
While the basic scenario is familiar, the characterisation is faultless, from the depressive detective hero with an ever-present gun on his table, toying with the idea of suicide, to the terrifying psychopathic killer (with perhaps a little of the DNA of motel proprietor Norman Bates), living with his alcoholic mother in a house filled with secrets.
Admittedly, there are moments when we are reminded that crime fiction is not King’s natural territory: a lengthy description of the horrors of daytime reality TV shows (which Hodges glumly watches) outstays its welcome, and both hero and villain are cut from a very familiar cloth. But King aficionados will be riveted from the first explosion of violence to the final, equally seismic, climax.