MR. MERCEDES has an opening that epitomizes Stephen King's mastery of character. In a few short pages, King captures with well-placed dialogue and introspection the struggles of two people who are trying to keep their heads above water in our unstable economy. Then everything goes terribly wrong for these two people (three, if you count the most unfortunate soul in the crowd), and the reader realizes that anything, and everything, is possible in this shocking and brilliant thriller.
When we're introduced to Det. Ret. K. William Hodges, our protagonist, the reader is still reeling from the opening pages, but King manages the segue well enough, tossing us into a rather humorous scenario unfolding on Hodges's television. He's watching a Jerry Springer-style talk show (which also gives a nod to Dr. Phil), and hilarity ensues. The juxtaposition is startling, like an ice cube down your back on a hot day, and you're wondering how you could be laughing after having read such a horrific opening only moments before. Because Stephen King. That's how.
For all of this novel's strengths, the ending shines the brightest. One could say this is because King's written some lackluster endings over the past decade (the exception being JOYLAND, which I gave five stars to as well), but the truth of the matter is that MR. MERCEDES has one of the most satisfying conclusions I've ever read. Sheer perfection. The last half of this book is a race to the finish, and by the time I reached the section entitled PROCLAMATION I was out of breath and both physically and mentally exhausted. I was blind-sided by the reveal at the 50% mark. Then again at the 65% mark. Both of these events coupled with the tragic opening gave me a sense of dread so thick I almost had a panic attack. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that Brady was going to win.
Ah, yes, Brady. Brady Hartsfield is Annie Wilkes ramped up to the umpteenth degree. He's a real-life monster that chills you to your bone. And his crazy escalates as the novel progresses. I've always loved books that put me in the minds of their antagonists, but Brady's the first heavy whose head I simply wanted to GTFO of. A perfect match for Brady is his equally insane mother. Their relationship is revolting, and they both meet fitting ends. Poor Frankie. Poor, poor Frankie.
Here's where the nerd in me comes out. King references IT, CHRISTINE, and Joe Hill's HEART SHAPED BOX. I believe there is a reference to CREEPSHOW, as well, but I haven't been able to confirm that yet. It's been years since I saw that movie. I loves me some Easter eggs, yes I does.
In summation: One of King's best works, period. If you hate King, I'm apt to believe MR. MERCEDES would be the first book of his you'd enjoy, because it's bereft of lag and strenuous detail. If you're new to King, you can't go wrong by starting here. If you're a Constant Reader, you'll be pleasantly surprised. My highest recommendation.
(And yes, this one will be in my top twenty, but I have to figure out which book is getting dumped for this one, and that might take some time.)