Sunday, August 3, 2014

Complicity: Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes

“The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.”
 Stephen King, Mr. Mercedes

Adam Lanza, James Holmer, Seung Hui Cho, Dylan Klebord and Eric Harris, Robert Hawkins may or may not be household names, but the horrific violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a movie theatre near Denver, Virginian Tech, Columbine and a shopping mall in Nebraska, will surely be etched in the minds of most readers. The spree of rampage killers and the speculation as to what extent the wider culture contributed to this tragic mayhem inspired Stephen King’s most recent offering, Mr. Mercedes (Scribner, 2014), the first of a projected trilogy. Unlike most of King’s previous and prodigious output, there are no supernatural or paranormal phenomena. Instead, King draws upon the conventions of the mystery genre which he experimented with in The Colorado Kid (2005) and Joyland (2013) to create his first hard-boiled detective tale. But Mr. Mercedes is no whodunit since we learn early on that the perpetrator is a banal psychopath, Brady Hartsfield.

In a riveting prologue, set in an unnamed Midwestern city in the spring of 2009, King renders a sympathetic portrait of the economic struggles of a man down-on-his-luck and a woman with a baby. They are among the estimated four hundred desperate job seekers, displaced by the ongoing recession, queuing up outside the building overnight where a massive job fair is scheduled. Hours later a gray Mercedes sedan emerges from the early-morning fog, plowing deliberately into the crowd, killing eight, including the individuals we have just met, and leaving many others critically injured. In only a few pages, King demonstrates his strength in crafting memorable characters. The car, we soon learn, was stolen from an aging widow named Olivia Trelawney. According to the media and believed by the police, she may have abetted the crime by leaving her extra key fob in the car, allowing the driver – dubbed "Mr. Mercedes" by the press – to commit his murderous mayhem. Vilified in the press, a guilt-ridden Mrs. Trelawney several months later commits suicide and Mr. Mercedes is still at large. We find out later that the police and press were wrong about the key fob and that much more sinister forces were driving the woman to her death.

The unsolved case haunts Detective Kermit "Bill" Hodges plaguing him with guilt for not apprehending the killer. Now retired, aimless and depressed with his boring life that includes the brain-numbing afternoon television, he's been contemplating suicide. His life takes a dramatic turn when he receives a gloating and chilling letter from someone claiming to be Mr. Mercedes, the "perk" (as he calls himself) in the City Center massacre. Filled with lies, largely misleading clues and inside information that suggests that the killer is living on the edges of Hodge’s life, the taunting letter is intended to push the vulnerable Hodges one step closer to suicide. It has the opposite effect; it galvanizes him into a commitment to identity and arrest the killer, one who invites Hodges to contact him through a social media site called Debbie’s Blue Umbrella where the two subsequently communicate.

In alternating chapters, Mr. Mercedes proceeds with a cat-and-mouse battle of wits between an unprepossessing, overweight gumshoe and a crazed killer each attempting to manipulate each other through this anonymous website into making a fatal mistake. This pas de deux enables King to inhabit both Hodges and Hartsfield’s minds and one of the author’s strengths is the explication of character. As Hodges revisits the case, he comes to realize that he and his former partner mismanaged the investigation of Mrs. Trelawney. This failure and her subsequent death only reinforces the guilt he already feels over his inability to solve the case. Any prospect for redeeming himself in his new role as a private detective would not have been possible without the assistance of Jerome Robinson, an African-American teenage neighbor of the detective who is intellectually and computer savvy and especially Holly Gibney, perhaps the novel’s most interesting character. She is a middle-aged woman suffering from severe social anxiety but beneath the damaged exterior she presents to the world resides a woman with hidden resources and surprising talents that reveal themselves when they are most needed. This ragtag group feeds off each other’s strengths, a trust that is a decisive factor in the outcome.

Author Stephen King
By contrast Hartfield is a scary loner who we might have dismissed as a cliché but King’s probes into Hartfield’s psychology render him credible and understandable while keeping the character repellent. He carefully delineates the circumstances that turned this average man into a misanthropic killer. Friendless and bullied at school, Hartsfield is now an anonymous, almost invisible young man, a computer whiz who works at a local electronics store and has a second job driving the neighborhood ice cream truck, always intent on playing it safe and staying on every one’s good side. Yet beneath that ordinary veneer, he is in Hodges words, “broken and evil,” full of venom expressed (silently) in the crudest terms toward almost everyone – not all that different from the profiles of the real life killers identified above who hated society and were intent on personal revenge. But King delves further by describing a troubled past that includes a dark family secret and a highly sexualized relationship with his alcoholic mother.

We are now in the realm of popular culture. The influence of the motel proprietor, Norman Bates, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is unmistakable. Personal and family circumstances can contribute to homicidal violence. King avoids the issue of gun violence in American society, perhaps for good reason since his first novel, Rage, published under a pseudonym, describes a school shooting. The novel was later linked with a spate of school shooting incidents leading King to withdraw the book from circulation. He is more comfortable exploring the broader context of America’s fixation on violence in popular culture. Mr. Mercedes is chockablock with allusions to popular culture. In his missive to Hodges, Hartsfield specifically zeroes on it: “I think a great many people would enjoy doing what I did, and that is why they enjoy books and movies (and even TV shows these days) that feature Torture and Dismemberment…The only difference is I really did it." King implicitly agrees by referencing so many serial killer stories, violent video games, Lee Child novels and Wild Bunch screen savers, and that list does not include television. The Wire, Dexter, CSI, NYPD Blue, Homicide, Luther, Prime Suspect, Bones and 24 are all cited. I wondered whether King was echoing the ice truck killer in the first season of Dexter in his portrayal of Hartsfield’s ice cream truck and the race-against-the-clock scenario to prevent a catastrophe from occurring is reminiscent of 24.

That King references his own literary works suggests his awareness that he might be complicit in contributing to a violent culture. The car as a murder weapon recalls his 1983 Gothic novel, Christine. More explicit is the symbiotic relationship in his 1987 Misery between the writer, Paul Sheldon, and his fan, Annie Wilkes, who initially rescues him from a car accident and nurses him in her own home before depriving him of medicine and wielding a hatchet to force him to rewrite a manuscript. That destructive relationship is similar to the one between Hodges and Hartsfield as each needs the other to provide a purpose for their life. The car as a lethal machine confers an autobiographical association since King in 1999 was struck by a car and seriously injured. And near the end of Mr. Mercedes, the backstory of Holly Gibney not only helps to explain her psychological problems and why she is on a personal crusade to help take down Hartsfield, but her history and motivation recall King’s 1974 novel, Carrie, and the enactment of the revenge fantasies of a damaged teenager at the high school prom.

King’s masterful story-telling prowess is especially evident in the fast-paced last one hundred pages. The Mercedes massacre has triggered something dormant in Hartsfield. He has come to crave the adrenaline rush that comes with murder, an excitement that can only escalate. He is inspired in part by the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, (which King references on the same page as the musing of Hartsfield quoted at the outset of this review) without its political or religious extremism. Hartsfield searches for a suitable new target and plans an operation, one that will result in a large number of casualties and satisfy his evolving need to achieve a “high score” and posthumous glory.

King is certainly not making a direct causal connection between a violent-inundated culture and acts of violence by a deranged killer. As a novelist, he is primary a story teller not an expository writer. He is not didactic or prescriptive, but he is encouraging his readers to reflect on the possibility that there may be some link. If a reader does investigate, he may find, for instance that there is some evidence that violent video games can contribute to violence in the real world. The mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik told the court that “he ‘trained’ for the attacks he carried out in Norway [in 2011] using the computer game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.” What will likely be more memorable for King readers is his finely-honed portrait of the title character and wondering how many other seemingly normal young men out there will allow their frustrations and angers to curdle into a rage that will drive them to commit an act of terrorism in order to gain a fleeting recognition.

(Photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin LadenYou can find more at his website,

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