The Edgar Awards Revisited: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King (Best Novel, 2015)
The stolen Mercedes emerges from the pre-dawn fog and plows through a crowd of men and women on line for a job fair in a distressed American city. This is crime fiction as only Stephen King could write.
Stephen King was my first favorite author.
Growing up in the 1970s, there were very few YA books. (I’m honestly jealous of my kids who have these HUGE young adult sections and lots of great books across all genres to choose from.) So I read all the Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew and even Agatha Christie. I read Lois Duncan and Joan Lowery Nixon and Paula Danzinger and even went through Ray Bradbury’s short story stint because of a library recommendation.
By the time I was thirteen, I was desperate for good mysteries and scary suspense. I found Stephen King’s The Stand at the library and it was nice and thick (I had just read The Odyssey for extra credit at school, so I felt I was worthy of an 800+ page book.) Plus, I had Christmas Break coming up and needed something to tied me over. The Stand changed my reading life. I was introduced into a far bigger world of suspense and thrills than I had imagined existed. I read every Stephen King book in the library, and for Christmas every year since, my mom would buy me the latest Stephen King, in hardcover.
While Stephen King is known as a “horror” writer, I never quite considered him as such. I thought his books were much more suspenseful and exciting than what I’d read in horror. There was mystery, suspense, and most of all, people. I felt like I knew each and every Stephen King character, important or minor. They felt real to me because they were good and bad, flawed like all of us. They could be brave and terrified; heroic and dangerous. Sometimes the bad guys were evil, and sometimes they just spiraled down into despair.
King has experimented in his writing. He’s written stories beyond his roots, taking risks because he wanted to tell the story. In many ways, Mr. Mercedes, the 2015 Edgar Award winner, deviates from what he’s known for while at the same time delivering his trademark suspense. At its core, Mr. Mercedes is a crime thriller—my favorite genre. It’s also a battle between good and evil with a ticking clock. And for mystery lovers like me, you get one of the most compelling, conflicted, honest, and real protagonists in former cop Bill Hodges.
The core of the story is simple: a killer, who mowed down a bunch of people early one morning as they waited in line at a job fair, contacts a retired detective with his confession note months later, prompting him to continue investigating.
I still relive the thuds that resulted from hitting them, the crunching noises, and the way the car bounced on its springs when it went over the bodies. For power and control, give me a Mercedes 12-cylinder every time! When I saw in the paper that a baby was one of my victims, I was delighted! … I have absolutely no urge to do it again. In my case, once was enough. I have my memories, and they are as clear as a bell. … So you see, we are both “Ret.”
Bill doesn’t buy that the Mercedes Killer is retired, and he starts his own investigation… and quickly learns that the killer has been communicating via letter with others—including the woman who’d left the keys in the ignition of her Mercedes which prompted the killer to jump in and kill. Only, the letters to her are distinctly different in tone and substances as the letters to Bill. He states that he was sexually abused, that he wanted to go to college but couldn’t, a bunch of sob-story tragedies that created him, a killer. Then:
I thought the chances were at least 50-50 that I would get caught. I didn’t care. And I SURE didn’t know how it would haunt me afterward. I still relive the thuds that resulted from hitting them, and I still hear their screams. Then when I saw the news and found out I had even killed a baby, it really came home to me what a terrible think I had done. I don’t know how I live with myself.
We, the reader, know who the killer is. One thing that King excels at is getting into the minds of his characters—the good and the bad. In Brady Hartsfield, King creates a deliciously smart and evil villain. There is nothing I love better than a smart villain because that means the hero has to be smarter… more diligent, more dedicated, more motivated… to stop him.
As a long-time Stephen King reader, there are some distinct differences in Mr. Mercedes and his earlier work. First, it’s more tightly written. Second, it’s written in present tense. Third, it’s more dialogue-heavy than most of his stories. Finally, this feels like a crime thriller from page one to the end. The back and forth scenes between Brady and Bill, with Brady’s letters interspersed that give Bill more insight into Brady than Brady can imagine, are crisp and almost noir in tone. I think it’s this dynamic, more than anything, that gave this book the win in the Edgars.
It’s worth noting here, mostly for writers, is that no one does character better than King. We meet Retired Detective Bill Hodges on page 15:
Hodges walks out of the kitchen with a can of beer in his hand, sits down in the La-Z-Boy, and puts the can down on the little table to his left, next to the gun. It’s a .38 Smith & Wesson M&P revolver, M&P standing for Military and Police. He pats it absently, the way you’d pat an old dog, then picks up the remote control and turns on Channel Seven. He’s a little late, and the studio audience is already applauding.
We learn a lot about Hodges in that opening paragraph. And a lot about King’s style. There’s a reason Stephen King is one of the most popular writers on the planet… and Mr. Mercedes is one of the best examples of why he should be.
Notes from the 2015 Edgar Awards:
- King beat out Wiley Cash (This Dark Road to Mercy), Mo Hayder (Wolf), Stuart Neville (The Final Silence), Ian Rankin (Saints of the Shadow Bible), and Karin Slaughter (Cop Town) for the Best Novel Edgar.
- Tom Bouman took home the Best First Novel for his Dry Bones in the Valley. He beat out Julia Dahl’s Invisible City, Allen Eskens’ The Life We Bury, C.B. CmKenzie’s Bad Country, Adam Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready, and Ashley Weaver’s Murder at the Brightwell.
- Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe by J.W. Ocker won the Best Biography.
- Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William Mann won Best Fact Crime.
- Best Short Story went to Gillian Flynn for “What Do You Do?,” beating out entries from Dennis Lehane/Michael Connelly, Brian Tobin, Heather Vogel Frederick, and Stuart Gibbs.
- Jane Casey’s The Stranger You Know won the Mary Higgins Clark Award.
- Lois Duncan and James Ellroy served as co-Grand Masters.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as Allison Ziegler stops by to review Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy, the 2016 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.