Reviews

MR. MERCEDES (Bill Hodges Trilogy #1), by Stephen King

 

After a long hiatus due to a mild disenchantment with Stephen King’s works, I found my way back to his novels through The Outsider and the more recent – and for me far more successful – The Institute. So I decided to retrace my steps and see what other good stories I missed in those “years of disappointment” and settled on the Bill Hodges series, starting with Mr. Mercedes: this trilogy marks a change of pace from King’s usual offerings, since it’s a crime/thriller novel with no elements of horror or supernatural activities, but as I’ve often found out we hardly need monsters to inspire dread, when the darkest depths of the human soul offer more than enough material in that sense…

Mr. Mercedes proves this theory from the very start: in 2009, as the world suffers in the grip of widespread recession, a sizable crowd forms around a stadium where the next morning a job fair will open its doors. Hundreds of hopefuls queue up in the chilling nighttime fog waiting for an opportunity, when a high-end Mercedes sedan plunges at full speed over the crowd, killing eight innocents and maiming twice as much.  Roughly one year afterwards Bill Hodges, one of the detectives working the case of the Mercedes Killings, finds himself in a deep depression brought on by his retirement and the ghosts of the cases he could not solve: he spends most of his days drinking, sitting in front of the TV watching trashy shows, and at times contemplating suicide. All this changes when he receives a letter from the killer, calling himself Mr. Mercedes, and urging the detective to put an end to his life. Forced out of his inertia, Hodges engages in a progressively more dangerous game of cat and mouse with Brady Hartsfield, the killer, teaming up with some unconventional helpers like Jerome, a tech-savvy teenager; Janey Patterson, the sister of the Mercedes’ guilt-ridden owner, driven to suicide by the killer himself; and finally Holly Gibney, Janey’s niece and a character I met in The Outsider, making her first appearance here.

Much as I enjoyed this novel, which turned out to be a compulsive read, I ended up being of two minds about it: on one side the story moved along at a fairly relentless pace and with the stakes getting progressively higher I found it practically impossible to put the book down, on the other, once all was said and done and the proverbial dust settled, my “inner nitpicker” surfaced and started pointing out several inconsistencies that I was able to overlook while I was engaged in reading, but came back to bother me afterwards.

What I liked: as usual, Stephen King’s main strength comes from characterization, and Mr. Mercedes offers many opportunities for the detailed creation of outstanding figures, starting with Bill Hodges himself, who might look like something of a cliché in that he’s the classical former detective, overweight and lonesome, who gave his all in the course of a long career paying the price in terms of family ties, and now feels useless and adrift, but ultimately shows unexpected resilience once he’s presented with the opportunity of getting closure on a case still preying on his mind for several reasons. There is a kind of twisted humor in the way Hodges evolves along the way, because the action that in the killer’s intentions should have driven him over the edge is exactly the one that revives the ex-detective’s interest in life and compels him to get out of the well of melancholy and lethargy that had enveloped him up to that point. This unexpected outcome works well within King’s overall tendency toward dark humor, which is evident both through some tongue-in-cheek references to his previous works (like IT or Pet Sematary) and through a few unexpected developments that keep frustrating the killer’s plans in a way that is, at the same time, dramatic and reminiscent of poor Wile E. Coyote’s major failures.

Brady Hartsfied stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, not only because he’s the villain here, but because he’s the worst, most despicable kind of villain one could ever imagine: a person with a history of abuse, granted, but also one who is a completely abominable creature filled with the need to make his own mark on history, to be seen beyond the drab anonymity of his life, and who chooses to do so by hurting people –  not just physically hurt them, but to torture them psychologically as he does with the owner of the stolen car he used for the massacre, or with Hodges himself. There is a well of hate in Brady – directed both inward and outward – that seeks release by striking toward those he sees as more “fortunate”, and he does so with such a gleeful abandon that wipes out any trace of compassion one might feel for the damaging experiences of his past. There is a chilling, inescapable consideration that comes to mind when reading his sections in the novel: that there are, and have been, many Brady Harstfields in the real world, that a substantial number of them have doled out death and pain, and that any one of them might do so again…

Where the characters and the story-flow worked quite well for me, there are however some narrative choices that did not: for example, Hodges’ dogged determination to solve the case without involving the police. If there is a believable reason, in the beginning, to keep the new evidence and the killer’s missives to himself, and if it’s understandable how Hodges might want this “last hurrah” for himself, this rationale stops being credible once Brady raises the stakes in an… explosive way (pun intended, sorry…) and shows that the theory of the dangerous wounded animal is more than sound. The reasoning behind Hodges’ decision, that the police department is busy dealing with a huge weapons raid, sounds far too convenient to be completely believable and looks like an aberrant deus-ex-machina created to allow the “heroes” to shine on their own.

Still, the final part of the novel is such a breakneck run against time and impossible odds that it’s easy to momentarily set aside any misgivings and to let oneself be carried away toward the ending. While I might not completely appreciate the method, I enjoyed the thrill of the ride and that’s what ultimately mattered. And of course I’m now curious to see where Stephen King will take his characters in the next two novels of the series.

 

 

My Rating:

27 thoughts on “MR. MERCEDES (Bill Hodges Trilogy #1), by Stephen King

  1. I’ve suffered from that mild disenchantment with King as well, starting with Revival, where I felt he left the best half of the story off the page, and Sleeping Beauties, which was a rare King DNF for me. I thought this was an okay read, but haven’t bothered with the other 2.

    The Institute I haven’t found my way into yet – I’ve actually been digging deep and enjoying The Tommyknockers as a mood read. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve wanted to read this series for some time now, and I’m so curious to see my own reaction. It’s been years since I read my last SK book (I believe it was Under the Dome) and I’m wondering if the issues you had will stand out for me too.

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    1. Under the Dome was a DNF for me: the story started very well, but then it… lost its way, that’s the best definition I can offer, and it took me a long time before I felt like giving King a chance: but this one ended up as a very engrossing read 🙂

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  3. I didn’t like this series for
    1) it’s lack of the supernatural. I expect that from King and it’s his signature as far as I’m concerned.

    2) Brady. That kind of horror should stay strictly in real life where it actually is.

    I never went on to the next 2 books, so best of luck…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I knew going in that there was no supernatural element in Mr. Mercedes, but that was not a problem for me, while to say I totally *loathed* Brady would be a massive understatement: but that’s where I admired King’s way of depicting him… 🙂

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  4. I missed this trilogy, but after my thorough enjoyment of The Outsider and meeting Holly, I have played with the idea of going back and reading starting from Mr. Mercedes. It’s still on the list, but you’ve actually got me really interested in The Institute, and I’ve often had better luck with King’s newer stuff 🙂

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    1. The Institute was the kind of book I had serious troubles in putting down, and it “cured” me of my disappointment with King. This series – at least judging from book 1 – looks like a very promising one, if you don’t mind the lack of supernatural monsters 😉

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  5. I have read a couple of Stephen King books in the past, but this one isn’t going to be one that I’ll be reading, as right now I’m not in the right place to cope with anything too dark. But thank you so much for a cracking review, which I thoroughly enjoyed:).

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  6. I was intrigued by this series ever since Bookstooge reviewed it, even if he disliked it hahaha I love the premise behind it and I am curious about King writing something without that supernatural element. I like that characterization is the strength of this novel and I hope it continues that for the remainder of the series for you. Looking forward to seeing how you’ll fair with them. Especially since you’re in this rekindling phase with Mr. King! 😀 Fantastic review, Maddalena!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!
      And yes, I’m very encouraged by my ability to reconnect with King’s work because I always enjoyed his stories, although there was a time when they failed to inspire the same level of interest they did in the past. This series sounds promising, indeed, and it helps fill the Thriller/Crime reading niche that I’ve decided to add to my usual speculative fiction field 🙂

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  7. Mmm, I don’t think I’ve read enough King to suffer the disenchantment factor but at the same time this one doesn’t really appeal to me and I’m not sure why. Perhaps I’m having a funny mood swing. I would like to read more King though for sure and also Pratchett.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If this one – and its sequels – does not appeal to you, there is a huge amount of King’s works to choose from: you only need to find the ones that “speak” to you. And Pratchett is another on my “must read one of these days” authors… 🙂

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      1. haha- well – venture on then my friend. I loved the whole Mr. Mercedes trilogy. Though it’s probably safe to skip book two if you really wanted to. It’s not really tied to Hodges that I remember.

        Liked by 1 person

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