Last night I finished Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes and it was good. I wnat to say good not great but am bothered by that thinking. The book didn’t tackle any radically big ideas (other than good vs. evil, that little thing), but it was well written, kept me reading, and left me satisfied. King kept things tight and well crafted. I tried to read his Kennedy book (11.22.63) which was supposed to be bigger and more important than Mr. Mercedes, but it was in desperate need of a hard-assed edit to cut the word count 10-20%.
That Kennedy book seemed aimed at critics and smacked of a writer trying to prove something. Mr. Mercedes was written by a writer comfortable in his own skin and prose. It is a book written for readers. The difference is in tone and craft, especially concision. No one accuses the writer of The Stand of being concise, but he also wrote Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a tight, hundred-page, perfect book. In Mr. Mercedes, King believes in the story and himself. He follows William Strunk’s command to “Omit needless words.”
The book isn’t art hung in the Louvre, it is craftsmanship like a good 40s detective novel, a Springsteen song an Andy Warhol soup can. It appeals. It works. That shouldn’t damn the artist or the art. I come here to praise Stephen King, not to bury him.
My experience with detective fiction is limited. I compared this to the Robert Galbraith novels and thought it in the same league. Writing at J.K. Rowling’s level is damn good. Most writers do a lot worse.
As for the story, it unfolds well and doesn’t play cute. The killer is revealed early and is a main character. Supporting characters are delightful and they evolve. The protagonist, Det. Ret. Bill Hodges feels real, has all sorts of warts, but is smart and I believed in him. The ending leaves me wanting to read the next two books in the series.
I’ve ordered the second book, Finders Keepers from my library, but I will read Underground Airlines (Ben H. Winters) first. That book seems major and a different thing from Mr. Mercedes. I’ll get back to Bill Hodges and Stephen King and I’ll be happy to do so, but it can wait.
It’s easy to look down on a thriller such as Mr. Mercedes, but I’m so happy I read it. It’s easy to look down on Stephen King until I imagine trying to write that well. There are artists doing things mere mortals only imagine. Their books are taught in schools and colleges. They are revered. It is the craftsman and craftswoman however whose books we read by choice and pass on. Of art we say, I’ve read that. Of craft we say instead, you must read this. You’ll love it.
That’s what I say about Mr. Mercedes. I loved reading it. You will too.