Like so many of Stephen King’s novels, Mr. Mercedes has a collection of laughably creaky old tropes at the center, including a serial killer who can’t stop baiting a cop to come find him, and a young attractive divorcée who can’t stop boffing the much older, out-of-shape private investigator she’s hired. For most writers, a lot of the business in this novel would read like the author picked up most of his plot via a halfhearted stop at Señor Lazy’s Bargain Cliché Bin. But King handles tired ideas the way he always has: with an obscuring cloud of grounded personal detail, and a familiar machine-gun prose style. At this point, his writing style feels as specific, idiosyncratic, familiar, and comfortable as a Woody Allen credits sequence or a Star Wars opening crawl—and it prompts the same kind of divided reactions, providing a tidy line of demarcation between King fans and non-fans.
Mr. Mercedes opens with its best sequence, an unhurried look at a job fair in a depressed town with a bad economy: People start arriving in the dim hours of the morning to beat the rush to line up, and they find a hopeless camaraderie in the queue. King gives the scene the same leisurely sprawl and creepy foreshadowing that he gave to the opening chapter of The Long Walk; casual bits, like introducing a wisecracking bit player with “This was Keith Frias, whose left arm would shortly be torn from his body,” make it clear where the sequence is going to go when the mass murderer who gives the book its name shows up in his Mercedes. Years later, the Mercedes Killer still hasn’t been caught, and retired detective Bill Hodges considers it one of his most nagging cases. Then he gets a taunting letter from someone claiming to be the killer, and hinting none-too-subtly that Hodges should admit his uselessness and commit suicide. Instead, Hodges—who was in fact considering suicide—gets reinvigorated by the new lead, and starts hunting the man down.
Mr. Mercedes’ biggest strength is the way King keeps up the chain of reversals. There’s an obvious way for this story to go: Early on, the killer invites the cop to come chat in a private online forum, and an entire plausible novel opens up, with the two of them engaging in an intimate yet deadly game of verbal chess. Instead, King repeatedly sets up expectations, both through his characters’ best-laid plans and through familiar story patterns; then he subverts them, sending the story off in all-but-random directions. The constant changes keep the book from building a consistent flow—just when he primes readers to expect something thrillingly awful, he veers off on a new course—but they also invite exciting, unpredictable developments.
But even when he’s being surprising, he’s also bringing in predictable King-isms, including an Internet-savvy black teenager who for some reason loves to speak in a “yas massa” Southern slave patois; a classic woman-in-refrigerator setup; and that aforementioned divorcée who’s all too eager to hop in bed with Hodges. She at least makes herself plausible by coherently explaining her reasoning—in the process, taking some steps toward becoming a person who makes actual choices for herself, not just a cutout character following a well-worn path—but she never entirely shakes the impression that her character’s name in the first draft was Standard Revitalizing Love Interest.
Like Hodges, Mr. Mercedes sags significantly in the middle, but it barrels toward a memorable conclusion. King’s work has almost always gotten lost in translation on the big screen, but his tense, propulsive, ultra-fast-paced climax here seems like it was written with the movie in mind. It’s the exact opposite of that leisurely opening, and a fine study in contrasts, suggesting King can still work equally well in both modes when he puts his mind to it. Mr. Mercedes doesn’t rank among his best; it’s choppy, and at times perfunctory, and it lacks the sense of slow-building, looming dread that give his strongest books their power. But it’s a major step up from his previous book, Doctor Sleep, and it’s unusual in its dedication to surprising readers who by this time may think they know King like the back of their hands. Allen movies and Star Wars credits rarely come with this many wild change-ups in the mix.