A lot of late career King seems to have divided opinion somewhat. 11/22/63 seems to have received damn near universal acclaim, but Dr. Sleep, Under The Dome, and Revival have all attracted significant criticisms from some quarters, as well as some staunch fans. From what I can gather, Mr. Mercedes seems to fit into that ‘marmite’ pattern somewhat.
In some ways, I can see why. For starters, it’s entirely non-supernatural - I guess by strict genre definitions a crime thriller - though, I mean, so is Misery, if you think about it, so I’m not sure the label is all that helpful. And, you know, it’s King, so crime thriller it may be, but it goes pretty dark in places.
Take for example, the opening. I confess to not having read every King novel and story, but I have read the majority, and I’m not sure that he’s written an opening this powerful and gripping since IT - and candidly, depending on your taste, it may even be better than that. The standard King playbook is in effect, with a ticking clock to an uncertain doom. It’s exactly the kind of trick that he makes seem so effortless, and yet is almost impossible for a lesser writer to pull off without seeming awful. Here’s it is not awful. It is magnificent. I spent the entire opening few pages with my heart in my mouth and a sinking feeling in my stomach, and when I got to the end, I remember thinking ‘Bloody hell, how’s he going to keep that up?’
Well, for my money, he didn’t, quite. That said,I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Mr Mercedes, and there’s a lot to recommend it. I personally love King in non-supernatural mode, so this is a relatively rare treat for me, and his character work is as strong as ever, especially the retired cop protagonist and the villain.
Ah, the villain. For large sections of the running time, the book runs on the classic crime thriller parallel track - once chapter with the hero, one with the villain. It’s a classic approach for a reason, and King offers a casual masterclass in why, with the way the villain chapters give us insight not available to the hero leaving us in a constant state of tenderhooks, with occasional bursts of sheer panic as matters escalate.
The plot twists and turns neatly, and the 400 page running time, while not short by genre standards, nevertheless feels lean compared to King’s other more recent efforts, which for me paid dividends in terms of pacing.
It’s not perfect. It’s clear the villain understands technology rather better than the author at times, and while I really respect King’s efforts to come to grips with these necessary elements of a modern setting, there was the odd moment that felt a little awkward, if not cringe worthy. Additionally, whilst I enjoyed the individuals that end up forming a team with the hero, some of the elements of how they came together felt just a little forced, to me, somehow.
That said, I found reading this book to be a real joy overall, and while I don’t think it’ll go down as one of his classic works, it’s still a very exciting book from a novelist of incredible talent. I also cannot help but applaud a writer who, in his fifth decade of professional writing, is still pushing himself to try something new. We should all be so driven.
And seriously, read that opener. It’s a doozie.
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