In March of 1980, I and my friend and co-editor of New Venture Jon Gustafson—with whom I attended a couple of dozen cons—headed for Seattle’s (actually, SeaTac’s) Airport Hyatt hotel for Norwescon 3. The Guest of Honor was Alfred Bester, author of the seminal SF novels The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination among others, and the Toastmaster was Theodore Sturgeon, author of More Than Human, a book that made a profound impression on me as a young person, but what really caught my eye was that one of the attending pros was a writer named Stephen King. Now, I had received my usual box of review hardcover books from Doubleday a couple of months earlier, and one of them was King’s new novel, The Stand. I was already a King fan, having read his two previous books, Carrie and The Shining. The Stand was a quantum leap in King’s writing, where he “danced the funky chicken on the grave of the whole world,” as he later wrote. I really wanted to meet this man and get my book signed. When I got there, I saw this really tall guy—I’m six feet tall, and he was much taller, about 6’4” or so. He was wearing a plaid shirt and had a bushy beard—in short, he looked like a lumberjack! (Figure 1 is my impression of King as lumberjack; I just did the beard—in Paint Shop Pro—not the plaid shirt.) I got my book signed; I wish I still had it.
The Stand, as I said, was King’s third book—he had not yet had any movies made from his books, nor was he the world’s best-known sf/horror writer at the time. I had a few words with him, and I’ll be darned if I remember what we talked about; if I’d had any inkling, I probably would have interviewed him on the spot. Oh, well. But I kept reading King, and I ‘m pretty sure that at this point I’ve read every one of his published fiction books (and most of his short stories); his previous book was called Joyland, and was published by Hard Case Crime as a sort of detective novel. But like all of King’s fiction up to that point, it was a crime novel with a ghostly twist.
Even the cover to Joyland was a throwback to the “hard-boiled ‘tec novels of the fifties,” as it was meant to be. But King being King, you don’t really expect even a hard-boiled novel to be only that; you expected—well, at least I did, and I can assume I’m not alone—there to be some kind of oddball twist. The twist in Joyland is ghosts as well as evil psychic bad guys. But that wasn’t enough for King; he had to prove that he could do the real hardboiled detective novel.
Enter King’s latest hardcover, from Scribner (remember them? They published those Heinlein YA books we were discussing earlier—and we will get back to them reasonably soon!), and this one is kind of a shocker, for reasons I’ll go into later. The book is called Mr. Mercedes, and concerns a cold-blooded sociopath type who steals a Mercedes and uses it to plow into a crowd of job-seekers waiting outside a hiring site in the early hours of the morning in a large, unnamed Midwestern ciy. What makes this book so obviously and uniquely King is that before anything happens, he takes the time to introduce some characters and make us really care about them; his setups have almost always included people we can relate to and sympathize with who are suddenly (and often brutally) thrown out of their ordinary world into a world where the rules have suddenly changed, and nobody is safe anymore. An example would be Barbie (Dale Barbara) in Under The Dome (the book, not the TV series. The series has seriously (no pun intended) diverged from the book.)
The year was 2009, when Brady Hartsfield stole Olivia Trelawney’s twelve-cylinder German juggernaut and, wearing a clown mask, used it to mow down unsuspecting people in a lineup. The investigating police detectives were K. William Hodges and Peter Huntley; the expectation was that the unknown perpetrator would strike again, but he didn’t do so, at least before Bill Hodges retired. It’s now a year or so later, and Hodges is suffering from the malaise that a lot of retired cops get. He sits in front of the TV watching “reality” TV like Jerry Springer and Judge Judy, and fondling his hideaway gun (his service Glock is in a drawer; he feels more comfortable with the .38 calibre revolver). At least Hodges isn’t a drinker, but he eats more than he should and toys with the idea of putting the barrel of his revolver in his mouth. That is, until he gets a letter in the mail saying Hey, I’m the Mercedes Man, and you’ve never caught me, neener-neener, essentially. The letter points Hodges to a chat site on the internet, called Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella, and says a user ID has already been set up for him and paid—if, that is, Hodges wants to talk about it. Hodges doesn’t know it, but Hartsfield goaded Olivia Trelawney, the owner of the Mercedes—and not the world’s most stable character—into killing herself from guilt, and he’s hoping to repeat this success with the cop who tried to catch him. Brady has been watching Hodges off and on through the open blinds on Hodges’ windows, and feels that Hodges is probably ready to become another suicide with the right provocation.
Yes, it’s a real website—even if it was set up just for this purpose, and if you enter the right password, you can do a little more interaction with it. I won’t tell you what that is; you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out. But surprise, surprise! as Gomer Pyle used to say; this letter, and what Hodges finds on the website, are just the reasons Hodges needs to get out of his retirement funk and back to real living. He decides that, rather than turning the letter over to his ex-partner Pete, who’s still on the job, he (Hodges) will investigate this sicko by himself and maybe he will see some justice done. (Hodges knows that withholding evidence is a crime, and he knows he could get busted for it, but it has given him a reason to get back in the game, and he relishes it.
Hodges doesn’t know it, but Brady can easily surveil him while Brady works his two jobs: in job number one, he’s one of those “Geek Squad”-type guys you see driving everywhere in a little lime-green VW bug; he works for the Discount Electronix people. For his second job, he’s even more ubiquitous: he drives a Mr. Tastey ice-cream truck. He’s one of those people who can smile on the outside while on the inside he’s thinking all sorts of nasty thoughts about what he’d like to do to you; thoughts that nobody with a “normal” conscience would even entertain.
Hodges has a secret weapon, though—a young black man named Jerome Robinson, who’s as smart as a whip, even though he likes to shuck and jive as if he were a street kid—when he mows Hodges’ lawn, he calls it “chos fo’ hos.” Jerome is headed for Princeton when he gets out of high school; he also has a kid sister and a dog named Odell. Jerome is also Hodges’ computer whiz. Brady knows Jerome and hates him, because he’s a “niggerkid,” and because he dares to be middle-class.
I’m going to take a moment to rail about King’s sloppiness here, if you don’t mind. It’s a common thing with King that most of his books have one big mistake in them that is kind of a crucial plot point; for example, in The Stand, a key plot point was that Harold Emery Lauder was busted reading Fran Goldsmith’s diary because he left a thumbprint in chocolate because of all the candy bars he ate. The catch here is that he ate mostly Payday bars and, until a few years ago—long after the book was published—Paydays never had chocolate! There is one mistake that could have been caught by a competent editor in many if not most of his books. The plot point here is that King obviously doesn’t know how websites are logged into: I’ve never seen—and I’ve been working in computers for something like 40 years—a website where you entered a password but not a login, or a login but not a password. But Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella just takes that login shown in the book as a single-entry login. Even John Camp, writing as John Sandford (Silent Prey, etc.), told me he has his computer-literate son vet all the computer-related stuff in his book. Okay, end of rant.
If Hodges knew who the Mercedes Man was—if he had known it was Brady—he would have found out that Brady’s even sicker in the head than just being a mass murderer. Because Brady has several pounds of home-made explosive at home in a vest in a closet—and, of course, that explosive is faced with a bunch of steel ball-bearings. (I’ll bet you anything Brady—or at least King—saw that scene in the movie Swordfish, where John Travolta’s character has put a bunch of hostages in one of those vests, and she blows up, sending ball-bearings—or maybe pachinko balls; seems to me that at least one of them was textured like a pachinko ball—all over the Los Angeles streets at a very high velocity. It was horrible, but terrific CGI.) And he’s decided to take that explosive and use it for a much different purpose than a suicide vest—he wants to commit another act of mass murder with a much larger victim pool. So it becomes a race between Brady and Hodges to see who will succeed. Brady has another sickness too; like Jim Rennie Jr. in Under The Dome, he suffers from extreme headaches, which only exacerbate his murderous thoughts. His mother, who’s an extreme alcoholic, is the only one who can make these headaches abate.
Brady decides that before all this can go down, he’s going to “get” the “niggerkid,” Jerome; but like most despicable villains, doesn’t go after him in person. No, he decides to poison the dog Odell as a way to get Jerome and his family. Personally, I feel that anyone who harms an animal is worse than someone who harms people, because animals don’t know why they’re being hurt. (As Karen Carpenter said, in the song “Bless the Beasts and the Children,” “for in this world they have no voice; they have no choice.”) So to further his sick plans, he buys some cans of “Gopher-Go,” which is full of strychnine. And some ground beef.
Hodges’ investigation is not fruitless, either. The main assumption that he and Pete had made when Olivia’s Mercedes had been stolen to be a “WMD” is that she had either forgotten, and left the key in the ignition; or possibly the “valet key”had been left in the glove compartment because she didn’t know about it. Either way, she was somewhat culpable in the deaths of those people and, because Pete and Bill didn’t know about Brady’s harassment of Olivia, they assumed that guilt over the keys is what drove her to take her own life. As Bill Hodges learns more, however, he begins to question that assumption; and here I must leave you, dear reader. For to say much more would be to give spoilers, and that I try not to do.
Oh, and the “shocker” I spoke about earlier? It’s this: there is NO element of horror or the supernatural at all in this book! That’s right; it’s a straight murder mystery, almost a “police procedural.” That’s right, Stephen King plays it straight! Chew on that one, and we’ll see you next week.
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