In June, 2014, an odd thing occurred. Stephen King published a book (Figure 2) that had absolutely no supernatural elements in it. Now, if you’ve been following King’s career—over the last umpty-ump years, you’ll know that he has published over 60 novels—45 or so under his own name; others under pseudonyms like “Richard Bachman.” And of those 45, about 43 of them have had some kind of non-natural (whether “supernatural” or alien, like in Dreamcatcher) event, or gimmick (or McGuffin, for film fans). To be fair, I can’t remember whether Dolores Claiborne did; and I’m pretty sure Misery didn’t—but let’s just say that of the horrors King is known for (as I said last week, I prefer to call him a “dark fantasy” writer), most of those are supernatural rather than human. One glaring exception is Mr. Mercedes (Figures 1 and 2), published June 2014. It is the first of three “Bill Hodges” books; the second one is Finders Keepers, (Figure 3) published in 2015; the last is called End of Watch (Figure 4). I will not, in this review, address whether this book is like the next two except for the cast of characters.
This book is a detective novel, with no supernatural element. The protagonist is one Bill Hodges, who has recently retired as a detective with an unnamed (in the book) police department in an unnamed city. (The book does say that the nearest major sports facility is in Cincinnati.) Another unusual thing about Mr. Mercedes is that the TV show—on AT&T’s DirecTV Now, was about as faithful to the book as possible, given the differing needs of TV and books.
But although Mr. Mercedes (book and movie) is about the detective, it (even though they are twins, I’ll just say “it” when referring to Mr. Mercedes, book and TV versions) doesn’t open on Bill Hodges; rather, it opens on a couple of people who have come to a job fair at the City Centre. Although the Fair doesn’t open till 8:00 or 9:00 A.M., Augie Odenkirk and Janice Cray are two of the dozens of eager job-seekers lined up at 11:30 the previous night. Although Augie hadn’t been rich, he’d been making it okay with a bit left over each month, until “something happened to the money,” and Great Lakes Transport had to tighten its belt and Augie was downsized.
Augie had brought a down-filled mummy bag; and Janice, a single mom, had brought Patti, her baby, in a Papoose carrier. As they got acquainted, Janice explained that she couldn’t find a sitter—or afford one—who would stay all night with the baby. The two, along with a few dozen other people, hunkered down in the fog—at least it wasn’t actively raining—to wait for morning.
When the baby began to fret a little later, Augie offered Janice the use of his sleeping bag so she could get the baby warm, change her, and breast-feed her. She did that, and the mother and child fell asleep in the bag. At about five A.M., the janitor passed by the locked doors on the inside, and people began to stir; there were now a hundred or more in line, though the fog was still thick, and the air was chilly.
Just before 6 A.M., when the city buses would begin running, Augie and others noticed a Mercedes SL 500 in the parking lot, facing the line of job-seekers, with its headlamps on and its motor running. “What’s a Mercedes doing at a job fair?” Augie and others wondered, then the car blew a long blast on its horn and leaped forward at a high rate of speed, directly at the line, running down those who were too slow to get out of its path.
Just before the car hit them, Augie threw himself over Janice and the baby, who were struggling to get out of the sleeping bag, but his gesture—though heroic—was futile. Including Augie and Janice (and the baby), eight people died at the scene and more than a dozen were significantly injured.
That’s the “horror” part of the book—and movie, as they show this opening in full in the TV show (this is a warning to those who are squeamish). That’s one of the things that King does well: he grounds his openings in mundane reality, and introduces us to people we could care about—and then he brings the hammer down and breaks the scene into a thousand shards, shattering reality and/or normalcy, and often killing the very people he has just made us care about.
The scene switches to the home of retired police detective Bill Hodges; forty years total on the force, 27 as a detective. He knows police work inside and out; it’s about all he knows. Like many retired—and single—police detectives, Hodges keeps a gun nearby… and thoughts of using it have not been far from his mind. (Checking online, it may be false that the suicide rate for retired cops is much higher than for the general public. One internet source says that cops suicide at a rate of 13/100,000 per year, while the general public’s rate is 12-17/100,00 per year.)
In a brilliant piece of casting, the TV people chose Irish actor Brendan Gleeson—who you might remember in the Harry Potter movies as “Mad-Eye Mooney—as Hodges; an actor I might not have thought of for the role had I been casting this. Hodges is the bored, retired cop—spending too much time eating, drinking beer (it is thought that many retired single police become alcoholics, although there appear to be no stats to back that up) and watching mindless TV, like Dr. Phil. And fondling his revolver. He has no idea that he is being watched, until one day a letter (printed on laser printer) arrives, purportedly from the Mercedes Killer (as said killer prefers to be called).
There are enough clues in the letter that Hodges is certain the real killer sent it… such as the twisted “smiley-face” sticker that is attached; same type that was attached to the steering wheel of the Mercedes when it was found abandoned after the killings. (A Mercedes that was stolen, incidentally, from a society-matron type named Olivia Trelawney, who swore she didn’t accidentally leave her key in the car—despite there being no evidence that would lead the police to believe someone broke into it.)
In the letter, which Hodges will do his best to analyze himself (forensically, he knows that the killer is smart enough not to leave fingerprints, hair follicles and the like; the type and paper are a) laser-printed—very common; and b) the kind of paper anyone can buy by the case at any OfficeMax or Staples) as to the killer’s writing patterns/word choices, and so on.
Since the killer urged Hodges, in the letter, to kill himself—he has, it seems, been watching—and taunted him about his inability to solve the crime before he retired, the letter has been taken as a challenge by Hodges. He won’t turn it over to the police, even though his ex-partner has not retired, and is capable of having the police force follow it up.
Although Hodges doesn’t know it, the audience/reader is let in very early about who the Mercedes Killer is. It’s a young man—very bright, but completely amoral; a real psycho- or sociopath—named Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway), who lives with his mother, an alcoholic (“A vodkaholic,” Hartsfield tells his co-worker), and works at a Best Buy or Circuit City analogue named Discount Electronix.
There’s another thing about Brady’s relationship with his mother. There’s more than a creepy mom/son relationship there. When Brady gets one of his frequent killer headaches, she encourages him to lie down and she… uh… helps “relax” him with her hand in his pants. ‘Nuff said about that.
Brady is, in fact, so bright that he created a device that can clone a remote signal from any car remote used in his vicinity (that’s how he stole the car without a key; Olivia did not, in fact, leave her key or spare in the car); he has—in the TV series—wired Hodges’s whole house with spy cameras, which he can watch real-time or as recordings. He also, in the TV series, had a dash camera in the Mercedes so he could record the screams and thuds as he drove over those people at the job fair.
In fact, Brady had been to Olivia Trelawney’s house numerous times to fix her TV or computer, and had wired her TV as well, so that he could play near-inaudible recordings of his victims’ screams through her TV. This, along with the cops’ inability to understand or believe that she was innocent of making her car a theft opportunity, (as well as a few letters sent by Brady accusing her of being guilty) was part of what drives her to suicide. Eventually, she figured she was to blame.
The blue umbrella featured on the cover of the book is a reference to a chat website possibly created by Brady Hartsfield; whether he created it or not, he certainly created a login and password for Hodges—kermitfrog19—a reference to Hodges’s actual first name of Kermit. He urges Hodges to log in and chat, as this would be so much more immediate than using the US mail. Hodges resists at first, but then finds out that Brady (whom he doesn’t know by name) has hooked up a video camera and, using motion capture, can video chat with Hodges without revealing his real face or voice.
Every character (both in book and in TV series) is well-drawn; the cat-and-mouse between Hodges, who is getting increasingly more interested in getting something out of retirement other than TV, booze and food—and Brady, who is himself getting tired of reliving old “triumphs” and is thinking of raising the stakes—is fascinating. Watching Hodges’s growth as a person with post-retirement interests; Brady’s increasing madness; and the secondary characters’ own developments is fascinating.
The secondary characters include Jerome Robinson (Jharrel Jerome—an odd coincidence of names), a bright young black man who helps Hodges with his lawn and his computer; Lou Linklatter (Breeda Wool), Brady’s gay, sardonic friend at work; Janelle (Janey) Patterson (Mary-Louise Parker), Olivia Trelawney’s niece; watching them and others develop is enthralling and as addictive as any TV I’ve seen lately. (And probably better than many of the theatrical movies I’ve seen as well.)
I’d love to tell you more, but… spoilers. I highly recommend this (book and/or movie); if you have a chance to watch it—or read the book—I think you’ll enjoy it, and not just in the spirit of Halloween horrors!
If you would, please comment on this column. Intelligent comments on my columns make me happy! You can comment here or on Facebook, where I publish a link in several groups. I welcome all your comments whether you agree with me or not. Remember, my opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week, for my last Halloween column… on Gerald’s Game!