Timing is everything.
I believe I might have enjoyed Stephen King’s latest offering Mr. Mercedes a bit more if I hadn’t recently read and enjoyed Michael Connelly’s Blood Work. Both novels share enough points that I found myself wondering if Mr. King was attempting to channel Mr. Connelly in his latest novel. And, to be quite honest, I’ll admit I enjoyed Connelly’s take on the story just a bit more.
Both stories feature retired law enforcement officers who are drawn into the pursuit of mad-men who have killed before and are looking to do so again. Both of our heroes have reluctant sidekicks who help them overcome difficulties (in the case of Blood Work, it’s McCaleb’s inability to drive, here it’s our heroes’ lack of understanding about using modern technology and the Internet) and both of our heroes fall in love with women, though King’s novel features a more tragic outcome than Connelly’s. Both novels center around a cat and mouse game between the retired law enforcement officer and the criminal in question.
And yet, I walked away from Blood Work feeling far more satisfied than I did here.
In fact, it feels like Mr. Merecedes it could easily slot into the Hard Case Crime series (where King has had great success) with little or no problem. Months earlier, Brady Hartfield stole a Mercedes and ran over a group of gathered job seekers, killing eight and wounding others. Brady has been lying low since that time, working his two dead-end jobs and learning about newly retired police officer, Bill Hodges. Unable to resist, Brady sends Hodges a letter, baiting him to log into an on-line forum so the two can converse. Brady’s hope is to drive Hodges to end his own life over the guilt and frustration of being unable to solve the case and bring Brady to justice. But the plan backfires when it instead re-ignites the passion that has gone out of Brady’s life and he begins to pursue the killer and try to bring him out into the light.
For the first half of the novel, King has a solid cat and mouse game going. He even gives us some insight into Brady so that while we don’t necessarily condone what he does, we at least understand what led to his destructive spree. We can also react in horror as Brady plans another attack in which he hopes to wipe out even more victims. The countdown to this attack helps drive the last half of the novel and is, quite frankly, what kept me going in the second half when my faith in the story began to wane.
Part of the waning is that the book works too hard to have Hodges obsession with bringing down Brady override his instincts. There are several moments that Hodges justifies behavior that would jeopardize a conviction for Brady or possibly stop him before he kills more people and Hodges seems to blow past them in some kind of personal bent to bring him to justice himself. There’s not enough made of the need for revenge on Hodges’ part to really make this feel like the novel has earned this and it leads to a series of consequences for Hodges. Many of these feel like the moment that Hodges needs to realize he’s in too deep and ask for help from the authorities rather than the path he chooses.
It’s a shame really because it all undermines what is a solid first half of the novel. King works hard to make Brady and Hodges two sides of the same coin, but it doesn’t feel like that character study holds up in the second half of the book.