Sunday, July 13, 2014

Mr Mercedes

My review of Stephen King's new crime novel Mr Mercedes from yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald. Don't want to bury the lede here, but safe to say Mr Mercedes isn't King's finest hour... 

Many bad crime novels begin with graphic violence, particularly violence towards children. Bad crime writers fear that unless the stakes are raised sufficiently at the start, their story-telling skills alone won’t be deft enough for potential readers to continue with the book. But if the villain is a depraved monster who does terrible things by, say, page six then the angry reader will be hooked. It’s instructive then that Stephen King begins his first foray into the private-eye genre, Mr Mercedes, with a car ploughing into a crowd of unemployed, desperate individuals queuing overnight at a jobs fair. This mass slaughter kills eight people, including a mother we have just got to know who is nursing her new-born baby. 

After this bloody prologue the action shifts to retired Mid-West homicide detective Bill Hodges, who spends his days watching Jerry Springer, drinking beer and contemplating suicide. King knows that this is a cliche, but mentioning what a cliche it is in the book is not the meta-textual inoculation from criticism the author thinks it is. The jobs-fair killer, nicknamed Mr Mercedes by the press, is a 20-something computer geek called Brady Hartsfield who has a very unhealthy relationship with his mother. We have seen this before too, in Psycho and in King’s own Sleepwalkers. To further underline his villainy, Brady is also an ice-cream van driver who hates children and, naturally, an invective-spewing racist. 

Brady gets in contact with Bill and invites him into an online chat forum where he hopes to taunt the cop into killing himself, but the scheme backfires as the wily old detective uses the chat forum to track Brady down. The police procedural part of the story is well told. King has a handle on the mechanics of an investigation and I particularly liked the way Hodges unpacked the killer’s poisoned pen letters. King is a writer equally at home in the world of screenplays and the frequent screenplay-like shifts in chronology and point of view worked well in the first third of the book.

King name checks James Patterson in Mr Mercedes and his storytelling is very much in this mould. King seems unconcerned that writers such as James Ellroy, James Lee Burke and Dennis Lehane have raised the prose standards in contemporary crime fiction. For King, like Patterson, the words are there only to service the plot. The pages must turn and they must turn as fast as possible. With unblushing chutzpah at one point in Mr Mercedes King complains about the poor dialogue in the TV shows NCIS, Bones and Dexter which is a little bit rich for someone who has an African-American character talk in a comedic slave patois for much of the book to the inexplicable delight of the white people around him. 

“Massa Hodges goan have to find hisself a new lawnboy!” Jerome exclaims, and Janey laughs so hard she has to spit a bite of shrimp into her napkin. 

King’s other démodé attempts at humour are equally disastrous and will illicit few chuckles, I suspect, in anyone not of King’s generation.*

The cat and mouse plot of Mr Mercedes and the sparring between criminal and cop will be familiar to those who have read Charles Willeford’s crime classic, Miami Blues, but this, alas, is a contemporary rewrite that lacks much of Willeford’s wit and psychological acumen.

In a review of Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch last year King expressed bafflement and exasperation at Tartt’s writing pace. How could any novel take a decade to finish, he wondered, when he writes two books a year? The irony here is that with a little more time and effort and much tighter editing, King’s first attempt in this genre could actually have been pretty good.
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* I wonder too if the unabashed use of the 'N' word and the embarrassed veil drawn over the sex scenes is also a generational quirk?

17 comments:

KIKAREN said...

Excellent review . . . not that I am ever likely to read it. Have you read Burial Rites yet? Probably not your kind of thing, but I loved it; thought the NY Times review was fair but ultimately missed the point. Just a great read and they are hard enough to find these days. I have just started In The Country of Men [Hisham Matar] so far so good.

seana graham said...

I doubt that you will hurt its sales to the slightest degree. Well, maybe to an infinitesimal degree.

A pet peeve of mine is when a story introduces you to a character, engages your sympathy and then immediately kills them off, as you say happens here. That's why I didn't get drawn into the television version of Game of Thrones. I don't know how the book goes.

Although I don't really read horror, I find it odd that King is undertaking a Patterson style book, when in recent years he has shown himself capable of writing very good short stories. He can't need the money, so it must be the fans he has to have.

Alan said...

Adrian,A scalding and insightful dissection of writer who could and should have done better.I think that formula bound writers with emotionally crippled protagonists and game playing villains have a certain market they aim at and with a "book a month" make a good living.There seems to be however in the U.K. and Eire such stiff competition for a targeted group of educated readers that writers have to labor more intensively with plot,prose and character development than many in "The States." Cheers for Sean and Michael.Best Alan

adrian mckinty said...

Kikaren

Thanks. No havent read Burial Rites or In The Country of Men, I'm still on The Restraint of Beasts which is excellent so far...

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I suppose he had the idea for the book, had read a lot of James Patterson and decided that he might as well write it as not. I dont know if he has much of a life outside of writing novels, so this is how he gets as kicks...And it'll sell millions so it wont hurt the back balance.

There is more to life than money though...

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Thanks.


I dont hate Stephen King or anything like that though! I just think he cd have done much better here.

You're right about the readership. Its small and I suspect getting smaller, older and less keen to fork out money to buy books esp when there's so much free media around...

Craig said...

"with a little more time and effort and much tighter editing..." Yeah, this could be said about most of King's books over the last decade. DOCTOR SLEEP was the last book of his since Y2K which I actually enjoyed.

adrian mckinty said...

Craig

This is a comparatively short book too (at least for SK) so it wouldnt have been a particularly onerous editing process.

Alas...

seana graham said...

I happened to be at a party today where I learned about the Audible requests for Ireland. I assume you are there now or headed back.

Yes, my connections extend everywhere. So what are the good listens of late?

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Ah, so you met Susie then?

Right now I'm at the Semana Negra in Gijon which is lovely. Very Spanish (we sat down to dinner at 11.45pm last night).

adrian mckinty said...

coupla pics from the Semana Negra...

https://twitter.com/Atram_sinprisa/status/488023522833596416

https://twitter.com/adrianmckinty/status/488008820778872832

seana graham said...

No, I don't know Susie, although we have several friends in common, one of whom was at the party, and who is also a fan of yours.

Nor do I know Gijon, although it looks pretty nice. The first pic looks like you are officiating at a bullfight.

KIKAREN said...

Restraint of Beasts is without doubt the funniest book I have ever read. You have to wait until almost the final page for the punchline but when it comes . . . .
Incidentally,The punch-line of Burial Rites is on the second last page. I must be a sucker for final twists.
And incidentally [!] the lady at Bookbag who reviewed my book Riccarton Junction [and gave it four stars] was the same reviewer who reviewed Burial Rites and she gave that four stars as well. Only difference between me and the author, Hannah Kent was that she received a $1.5m dollar advance and I had to self-publish.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

It, as they say, is a small world although I wouldnt want to paint it...

I dont know if they go in for bull fighting up here. They do have that running of the bulls thing but I'd never do that in a million years.

Not with my dodgy knee.

adrian mckinty said...

Kikaren

Its always the way. Mr Mercedes I'm sure will sell 2 million copies in hardback. And its a pretty feeble book; but that doesnt matter. Its not really about the quality of the book, its about the quality of the marketing and the quality of the brand I suppose...

seana graham said...

I thought you were painting it, in your fashion. I guess my connections aren't that impressive when I think about the fact that anyone following you on Twitter already knew this anyway.

I feel that I will probably succumb to Twitter at some point--it seems inevitable. But I do know that it will be my downfall.

Anne Horton-Smith said...

Really glad that you are enjoying The Restraint of Beasts - it's always a risk to recommend a book, but I think I was on safe territory with this one. I also meant to tell you (in case you haven't seen it) that In the Morning etc. was recommended by Marcel Berlins in the Times Top Summer Books: Crime Section on 5th July, along with big names such as Harlen Coben and John Connolly (also Stephen King).