Though I think Stephen King is arguably most well-known for his supernatural stories, I’ve always been a huge fan of his more “normal” works that may or may not have horror undercurrents. Different Seasons, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Cell, I enjoyed all of these for many reasons. King has a knack for writing about people, especially those that are overlooked or misjudged, and I believe it’s why he’s so great at horror stories. After all, most horrific things often have a human element to it. In Mr. Mercedes, a delightful gem that I am disappointed is not more well-recognized, King assembles a rag-tag team that I felt so compelled to root for and celebrate with as they try to untangle a criminal’s final death wish.
Unlike many other mystery stories, Mr. Mercedes starts out at a low point, at the end of Detective Bill Hodges’ career. You can tell how devoted he was to his job, sacrificing family and his own health in the process. It’s paid off usually, except for some loose ends and culprits which got away, one of which as you may have guessed, is Mr. Mercedes. We find Hodges eating junk food, watching mindless TV in his house, barely sleeping and contemplating suicide. He’s stuck in the past, thinking of his career and estranged family. He’s overweight, balding and lonely when he receives a letter from Mr. Mercedes. He’s cut off from his detective clout, but he can’t help but be drawn him back into the field to try and untangle Mr. Mercedes’ identity and his next move. In the process, Hodges ends up partnered with Jerome Robinson, an intelligent, cunning and hip high school student who feels caught between two cultural worlds. The last member of the trio is Holly Gibney, an anxiety-ridden woman who’s babied by her mother.
If you like stories in which people help each other grow and give one another a chance to prove themselves, then you will adore Mr. Mercedes as much as I did. It’s easy to root for the trio to prevail. Hodges is a great detective and a great observer. Mr. Mercedes, on the other hand, is also a great observer but he doesn’t try to see people beyond their looks. He uses them as he sees fit, thinking mean thoughts and acting on bad feelings. Hodges doesn’t act cruelly though. He genuinely cares about people and he gives them a chance, regardless of their age, gender or ethnicity. He’s a strong and genuine force of good.
Hodges becomes close with Holly and Jerome, despite their individual differences, and all three of them grow to admire and support each other. Jerome, on the surface, is a successful kid, and he really is. He’s good looking, smart, fairly wealthy and young, but he feels internally trapped between being “authentically black” and “too white.” You wouldn’t know how hard it is though based on his interactions with Hodges and his family. He’s so kind and compassionate towards his family, Hodges and later, Holly and it was so refreshing to see Hodges treat Jerome as he would a peer and in turn Jerome did the same thing. They were honest with each other and helped each other out. Their relationship subverts the whole “crotchety and out of touch” senior citizen stereotype and the “isolated and disrespectful” teen trope that is a welcome breath of fresh air as they are both open to learn and teach one another.
Later on, though you wouldn’t guess it at first, Holly comes to fit in well with their group. Like Hodges and Jerome, her appearance is deceiving. She’s a nervous, twitchy 40-ish old woman that mistrusts her medication and is shielded from the world by her overbearing mother. She picks at her nails and hair, has trouble talking with others, smokes and hardly eats, and looks like a teenager, which is fitting since she lives with her mother who is controlling. She immediately trusts Hodges though and feels at ease with him and later on feels similarly when she meets Jerome. While Jerome is technologically savvy, it turns out Holly is gifted too with some tricks up her sleeve that greatly aid the trio in cracking the case. I also found it a fascinating parallel that while Mr. Mercedes is also mentally ill, he couldn’t be more different than Holly. Holly may say and act weirdly and self-identify as being mentally ill like Mr. Mercedes, but she harnesses her behavior and chooses to use it to act heroically. She doesn’t isolate herself like Mr. Mercedes, rather she works to come out of her shell and trust Jerome and Hodges.
Jerome and Holly and Hodges fill out each other’s rough edges and they make a fantastic team, three people that someone would easily overlook. They each contribute to the mission and lean on one another. Hodges loses weight and finds a purpose again and family in working with Holly and Jerome. He doesn’t isolate himself inside at home anymore, degenerating alone. Jerome and Hodges encourage Holly to take her medicine and stop smoking, helping her to eventually find the strength to move out and seek therapy. In tough situations in which most people like Hodges and Jerome become emotional, she is calm and rational, anchoring the group to the present. And Jerome is just so kind. He’s tactile and encouraging of Holly and Hodges and he’s very intuitive, helping to deduct loose ends.
I read that Mr. Mercedes is currently being filmed for a potential TV season, which elated me. I really hope that it comes to fruition and gains more widespread acclaim for its characters, which seem so fully fleshed out and flawed as you and I, as well as the hope it generates in finding the good from a tragedy. It shows that an “old” man, a “mentally ill” woman and a “black” teen can form strong bonds and become a family, working together to do good. The book takes a typical plot but King invigorates it with dynamic and diverse characters which come together and become heroes in the process. They may be a little flawed and rough around the edges, but they’re human heroes, which I can appreciate more, and it’s thrilling to watch them develop. It’s a timeless lesson that I will never tire of, woven into a remarkable human story of what we can achieve when you take away stigmas and surface value and work for the common good.