Sunday, January 4, 2015
Whenever I start reading a novel by Stephen King, I somehow know what’s in store for me. It will be a roller coaster ride of a story, somewhat slow in the beginning but set up with local flavor suffused on the whole with an overriding sense of Americana, gaining steam in the middle and rushing into a terrific finale, just like in a movie. In fact, I could already smell the movie in his latest opus, “Mr. Mercedes”. The novel is set in an unnamed Midwestern city, a departure in locale from his usual home state Maine, although some of his novels have had other locations as well(“The Shining”, “Duma Key”). It features a villain that is nowhere near the supernatural ghouls of “Doctor Sleep” but rather that most quintessentially innocuous personality of the streets of small-town America: the Ice Cream Man in his Ice Cream van, here named “Mr. Tastey”. It turns out that not only is he the Ice Cream man, he is also that most familiar of contemporary Americans, the techno-geek. That he has somehow taken the leap from harmless pursuits to being a serial killer is explained in the usual love-hate maternal crucible that has been the staple of literature since Oedipus Rex and Psycho. His complicated relationship with the retired detective, name of Bill Hodges, who is as flawed and charismatic as a Raymond Chandler dick, is what powers the narrative.
The novel starts with that most sickeningly familiar scenario of American urban nightmares: a car, a stolen Mercedes, driven by Mr. Ice Cream Man plows into a line of jobless Americans looking for work. This leaves several people maimed and killed, including a woman with child. Later, we learn that his only motivation for the deed is not rage of any kind, but simply the thrill of the act. He is a true sociopath.
Hodges never caught him and this proved to be a thorn on his conscience. He had a suspected facilitator in the person who owned the Mercedes, a socially prominent and disagreeable lady named Mrs. Olivia Ann Trelawney, but they couldn’t pin anything on her, except to suspect that she had left her key in the ignition, and thus enabled the killer to steal her car and do his crime. The killer had abandoned the car later and left his sign on the dashboard: a smiley.
When Hodges receives a letter with a smiley on it, the narrative quickens. The writer, who signs himself “The Mercedes Killer”, taunts Hodges for failing to solve the crime a year ago, and promises to lift him out of his depression by doing another mass murder. Or, suggests the writer, he could kill himself and end his misery. Rejecting Mr. Mercedes’ suggestion to commit suicide, a re-motivated Hodges visits Mrs. Trelawney at her villa and tries to juggle her memory for some detail that she may have missed. She could not. A short time later, she commits suicide by ingesting pills. Her estranged younger sister, Janelle Patterson, who lives in California and has come down to Maine to attend to her sister’s estate, insists that it was out of character for Olivia to kill herself. She hires Hodges to find out why she did it, or if the Mercedes Killer had anything to do with it. They also have an affair, which brings a necessary complication to the plot.
There are other interesting characters in the mix of the novel: a computer-savvy black kid named Jerome, the former cop partner of Hodges, the ailing mother of Olivia and Janelle, and ultimately the creepiest mother this side of Bates motel, the Mercedes Killer’s own mother, a reclusive alcoholic with a tainted past and an even more tainted present.
True to its cinematic structure, the novel ends up in a climactic bomb scene at a One Direction-style concert in a city arena. In writing this scene, I detected a kind of unspoken wish by the 60’s and 70’s music –loving King to annihilate the boy band. As to the staging of this scene, you’ll have to read the novel to get the full effect.
Overall, this was an entertaining and page-turning novel, filled with the usual characters that Stephen King has given dimension to in his direct and particular prose. There is nothing contrived about these individuals. We know from the news coming from America that they do exist in one form or another. A serial killer who happens to be the driver of an Ice Cream Truck isn’t so farfetched. Several years ago, a 10-year old Filipino-American girl in a Los Angeles suburb heard the tinkling music of an ice-cream truck and together with friends, waited for the truck to appear. When it did not, the girl’s friends got tired of waiting and left. The Phil-am girl insisted on waiting for the ice cream truck. She was never seen or heard from again.
Mr. Mercedes, like many Stephen King stories, is rooted in the American mundane. It is the macabre twist that he gives into it that makes him such a distinctive and entertaining author.