King's latest novel seems, at first look, to veer off into previously uncharted territory for the prolific author. It concerns retired police detective, Bill Hodges, who spends his free time sitting in front of trashy TV shows and idly contemplating what it would be like to put his father's pistol in his mouth and pull the trigger. He is on a downward slope, not least because he is still haunted by the cases that were ongoing or never solved when he retired. The worst of these cases concerns a Mercedes car driven by an unknown assailant into a crowd of people waiting in line at a job fair. It resulted in eight dead and many more injured. The murderer was never caught. Hodges gets a chance and a new lease of purpose when a letter is put through his door claiming to be the Mercedes Killer...
King has said this is his first hard-boiled thriller and it certainly bears the hallmarks of a typical crime story. We have the protagonist, a man firmly on the side of the law (albeit with a loose attitude to that law as it applies to himself) and a clearly evil, almost caricature antagonist. There is investigation, thrills, a fly by the seat of your pants feel to it, yet it is also very clearly King.
In the early stages, the book splits neatly between protagonist and antagonist, two separate yet connected strands that are like a cat and mouse game at a distance. I found that, despite the almost comical two dimensional nature of Brady Hartsfield, the Mercedes Killer, these parts were the most enjoyable to read. While well written, the sections with Hodges were a wee bit on the bland side...or rather, very little was happening there. It spent far too long on Hodges memories of one particular area of the initial investigation and as someone who reads a fair bit of crime/thriller, it was in danger of going stale early on. Luckily, the bad guy bits were ore than entertaining, if mostly in a 'I really hate this guy' kind of way. It felt dirty being inside Hartsfield's mind, like putting your hand in a bag of slimy eels. These strands eventually intertwine more closely as the story progresses and towards the end, it's achieves a break-neck pace that had me drumming my feet in anticipation.
Whilst it superficially sits in the cops and bad guys sort of book, I found the early chapters most put me in mind of classic boy's books like The Three Investigators, or The Hardy Boys. Not that it reads like them, but there was just something, some atmosphere that put me in mind of them. Not that should put off anyone from reading it, as there is a wealth of good writing on display here. Regardless of whether this or isn't new territory for King, he brings a wealth of experience to the tale. Notably, his ability to reach in and give your heart-strings a little pull. The opening prologue/chapter is a perfect example. King expertly introduces you to well drawn characters and then slams a...well, a Mercedes right through your heart and soul and without being overly explicit. There is more of this emotive writing scattered throughout the book and it's this that makes the reader come back for more. Without it, I'd have found the story too slight, too flat to be interested. I did think he relied too much on pat references to popular culture, in particular name-checking The Wire and Homicide, and a lot of the movie references felt forced and unnecessary.
At the end of the day, this isn't King's best story (though that's no shabby thing), but it's a very entertaining foray into the crime/thriller arena and word is, there'll be more of this kind. A very solid 7.5 out of 10, if I was scoring...
Paul M. Feeney.
Paul M. Feeney has been watching horror films since he was a young, impressionable boy and before the lunatic hysteria reached his parent's censorship. This transferred to the written word when he was sixteen and read his first Stephen King book. He hasn't looked back since (except to check over his shoulder that there aren't any monsters following...).
The past few years have seen him turn his hand to the writing of his own fiction, in the arena of horror and the supernatural. He expects to be published soon, wit fame and riches following soon after...