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“Mr. Mercedes” by Stephen King is an excellent race-against-time detective thriller and not a typical King novel in that it does not have a supernatural theme. Recently-retired, divorced police detective Bill Hodges, in his mid-60s, has been wondering what he will do for the rest of his life when he receives a taunting letter from the Mercedes Killer, the last big case he failed to solve. The story opens in 2009, when the U.S. was in a deep recession.
Just before Mr. Hodges left the force, a man who had stolen a 12-cylinder Mercedes-Benz SL500 parked on the street, ploughed into a crowd of people standing in an unemployment line at a job fair, killing eight and critically injuring others.
The killer then returned the car to its original space and locked it. The police interrogated the owner of the car at length. Olivia Trelawney was a middle-aged woman who lived nearby and had enough quirks to make anyone look suspicious. She kept insisting she had left the car locked. But the police did not believe Olivia and kept questioning her.
After she committed suicide, the now-retired Detective Hodges wondered if possibly she had been telling the truth.
The reader learns almost immediately that the killer is 28-year-old Brady Hartfield, still at large after this tragedy.
Although Det. Hodges should turn the letter over to his former partner, he sets out to find the person who wrote it.
This was his case, and the mocking letter has made it personal. Besides, Det. Hodges knows there would not be any significant forensic evidence found in this letter. He knows he needs help, so he asks Jerome Robinson, a neighbor who mows his grass and is a very computer-savvy teenager.
The sister of the Mercedes owner, Janey Patterson, is in town for her sister’s funeral and soon becomes involved. She is pretty and the retired detective is attracted to her.
From the beginning, the reader shares the mind-set of the perpetrator. Glimp- ses into his life reveal why he is a killer.
A key problem in the story is Det. Hodges’ carelessness in getting civilians involved in police work and his refusal to turn evidence over to the police.
He digs out his expired detective badges instead. Three of the most unlikely heroes try to stop Mr. Hartsfield from blowing up or maiming thousands at a rock concert.
Mr. King even writes that the penalty for impersonating a police officer is a Class E felony punishable by a $25,000 fine, five years in prison, or both. One hopes that most retired police officers do not think the way Det. Hodges did.
This rapid-paced and suspenseful story, his 54th novel, is the first book of a reported trilogy.