The horror is all too human in Stephen King’s terse, terrifying new thriller, Mr. Mercedes.Taking a brief break from conjuring supernatural scares, King instead turns to real world headlines, using America’s recent spate of homegrown terrorism — the Boston Marathon bombings, among others — to fashion a tale as (sadly) familiar as it is unnerving. Mr. Mercedes, a lean read by King standards (the book conducts its bloody business in just 437 pages), follows newly retired police Detective William Hodges, who, after leaving the force, finds himself at loose, occasionally suicidal ends. His post-retirement ennui is abruptly ended by the deeply disturbed Brady Hartsfield, perpetrator of the gruesome Mr. Mercedes killing — the book opens with the harrowing scene of a high-end Mercedes annihilating a crowd in an early-morning fog — who baits Hodges into a high-stakes game of cat and mouse. Mr. Mercedes derives much of its queasy power from King’s ability to pull readers inside Hartsfield’s claustrophobic existence, a veritable incubator of banal evil. Every bit as loathsome as monsters like Pennywise the clown or Randall Flagg, Hartsfield is a fearsome, twisted creature, gifted with technological skills that make him a pure 21st-century terror. Although the nerve-shredding denouement is vintage King — a pulse-pounding race against time, set at a sold-out pop concert — the rest of the tale hits too-familiar marks, albeit with sly wit and an abiding love for hard-boiled noir cliches. That Hodges seems to almost anticipate his foe’s every move undercuts some of the grim reality King strives for, and many of the secondary characters seem like scarcely realized ciphers. It’s disappointing King doesn’t quite penetrate the heart of domestic darkness, but that doesn’t totally diminish Mr. Mercedes’ high-octane thrills.
Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones