The Short Version: Early one spring morning in 2009, a silver Mercedes plows through a crowd of job fair applicants – killing eight, maiming several more. The perp is never caught. A year later, when the lead cop on the case has retired and is starting to get listless, he gets a strange letter from Mr. Mercedes – a taunt, meant to goad him into suicide. But instead, it resparks the man’s engine and the two begin circling towards their inevitable reckoning…
The Review: Say what you will about Uncle Stevie’s prolificness of late – and I know there are plenty who would use it as the newest attack on the man who is perhaps our greatest living writer – but it’s damned refreshing to see the man turn his talents towards different types of stories, even while retaining his particular sense of the macabre and horrible. Lisey’s Story was a beautiful meditation of grief from a widow’s point of view, Cell was a fast-paced zombie story, Under the Dome was another sprawling epic about humanity, 11/22/63 largely a history piece – the man is as versatile as ever he was, if perhaps not even more so – and now he’s delivered a straight-up detective thriller.
There are no ghosts here, at least not real ones. No demons, no aliens, no nothing – just the evils that men do. Which, at the end of the day, has always been King’s target. The more supernatural elements of his work have almost always been at the service of revealing just how awful people can be – and how good, too. Even as the evil of The Overlook took over Jack Torrance, even as Kurt Barlow entered ‘Salem’s Lot, even as Carrie got doused with pig’s blood… there was goodness in the characters that fought back against the darkness. That may well be King’s eventual legacy, really: a man who wrote about darkness but only as a means of showing that we can battle it back if we try. We can save our sons, our daughters, ourselves – and while it might be hard-going, it’s sure gonna be worth it.
And the evil of this novel is a particularly resonant one, even some thirteen years after 9/11 and even more years after the DC snipers and the Oklahoma City bombings and so on. It is the evil of a single, crazy man and the possibility that “If You See Something, Say Something” might actually damn well work. Brady is an All-American sort of villain – he might not be the most successful, but everything about him… he’s Norman Bates but with a twist of Patrick Bateman. Handsome-ish, but non-descript. Tech-savvy, a talented actor, but deeply disturbed inside. If we were to homegrow somebody awful these days, realistically he’d look like Brady.
And our heroes, honestly, would look like Holly, Jerome, and Bill – none of them quite the figure of the ‘typical’ American hero and yet, together, so distinctly representing our gloriously blurred national persona. They are flawed, all of them, and King makes their flaws at first superficial but then quickly understood as nothing more than ordinary. Holly has some psychological issues, Bill is overweight, Jerome is a smart young African-American boy in a middle class that still isn’t quite ready to accept him. What might appear to less-generous readers (and, having looked at some of the major reviews, has appeared to less-generous readers) as signposting is really just King making these people (as he is so talented at doing) just like us. You see Bill Hodges every couple days, coming out of Dunkin’ Donuts or tooling down the street with the blues & twos on. You do – and you don’t think about it, because it’s just ordinary life.
And that’s the magic of King’s work. He makes the extraordinary possible in a sort of popcorn-y way: you know that you’re safely ensconced on your train or in your easy chair or your bathtub but when you slip into the book, you’re wherever he wants you to be and the stakes are real. A reader can’t pick up this book and say that, by the time the wheels are set into motion on the last day of the plot, they aren’t deeply curious as to what will happen. Of course, on the one hand, we know what will happen – it’s a Stephen King book, after all – but on the other hand we don’t care that we know because a) maybe it won’t go down like that, we don’t know and b) it’s all about the pulse-pounding race to get there. And this one comes down to the wire, for sure. King stretches things almost to their breaking point here but he keeps the tension at just the right pull and the conclusion is terribly satisfying. Yes, the revenge plot would be laughed out of Hollywood (as Brady himself acknowledges) but, again, that’s the idea: this isn’t a movie, it’s more like real life.
Although, yes, this one could make the jump to the screen far more easily than most of King’s work and I’m sure that someone in power will notice that post-haste, if they haven’t already. But the screen-readiness doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the book. Not one bit.
Rating: 5 out of 5. There are certain pleasures that we come to expect in this world. They change for different people, of course, but we all have them: our reliable, go-to pleasures. That we don’t have to say “eh, well, it was just okay” – but rather, we know that they will deliver the goods 100%. That, for me, is the work of Stephen King – especially in the last 15 years. His late-career (or really just post-‘retirement’ career) continues to not only prove reliably prolific but reliably good and it’s a pleasure to see him not just resting on laurels but rather continuing to experiment and to expand his ouvre – and while we might say “oh, of course a hard-boiled detective novel from Stephen King would be good”, we don’t really have any logical reason to believe that he’d’ve written one, let alone that it’d be as great as any of his other works. Except we do – because it’s Stephen King. May he continue to bless us with nightmares for many, many moons to come.