‘Mr. Mercedes’ by Stephen King is Not a Literary Novel

‘Mr. Mercedes’ by Stephen King   (2014) – 449 pages


Mrmercedes-200x303‘Mr. Mercedes’ will be a best seller selling millions of copies.  A hugely popular movie will be made based on ‘Mr. Mercedes’, if they can find a young actor willing to risk his career playing an evil loser.  But ‘Mr. Mercedes’ is not very original, surprising, or deep. Haven’t I read this story before, even though I haven’t?

A couple of weeks ago I read a review of ‘Mr. Mercedes’ which said that maybe today our two finest novelists might now be Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King.  I’ve had my problems with Joyce Carol Oates over the years, but I do consider her a major literary figure.  But Stephen King, Mr. Best Seller?  I’ve never considered the possibility that King might be a major novelist and have not read any of his novels or stories. On the chance that I may have missed something, I decided that I would read ‘Mr. Mercedes’.

In this novel Stephen King has written a detective thriller which tackles demented acts of violence.  Like so much of what happens today, the acts are done for no other reason beyond the severe personal problems of the perpetrator. Oh, yes, ‘Mr. Mercedes’ is a rouser, a roller coaster, just what you would expect a best seller and future movie thriller would be.  We have Bill Hodges, our old recently retired detective who is at loose ends since he left the force.  Only when one of the few criminals he didn’t catch, Mr. Mercedes, contacts him does our old detective perk up.  His only pal is Jerome Robinson, a black computer-savvy teenager in the neighborhood who mows his lawn and whom Hodges recruits to help capture Mr. Mercedes.  Later Hodges meets a younger woman who of course is all too eager to go to bed with him.

A rush of older actor leading men will be trying out for the role of Bill Hodges in the movie as well as young black actors trying out for the role of Jerome Robinson.

Our villain is a dastardly villain indeed.  Mr. Mercedes is young computer geek Brady Hartsfield who lives with his mother.  Besides working for an electronics shop fixing computers, he drives an ice cream truck.  He is portrayed as sick, twisted, and evil enough so that no one would want to emulate him. In true thriller fashion, the novel alternates between sections with our hero detective and sections with our creepy villain Mr. Mercedes.

A lot of the novel consists of trying to figure out people’s computer passwords in tense situations.

‘Mr. Mercedes’ is not any kind of literary work.  The characters are all clichés, and the thrills are all stereotypical.  There is no depth here, nothing really involving or challenging.  It is a thrill ride, nothing else.  It would be a shame if Stephen King were actually one of our finest writers.   Fortunately there are quite a number of United States fiction writers with more originality and depth than King, and at the world level there are dozens. ‘Mr. Mercedes’ is like the new Batman or Spiderman movie. For a few days it captures all the hype and the excitement, but after it leaves town no one really cares.

An encyclopedic recall of product names and show names does not a literary writer make.  A clever mimic of another writer’s style does not literature make.  A deadpan pastiche of a hard-boiled detective procedural is hardly literature.  Enjoy the movie.


15 responses to this post.

  1. I really like Stephen King. Truth to be told – I adore him. But… As a horror novelist, not some mediocre writer of criminal stories. I understand what he wanted to accomplish with “Mr. Mercedes” – gain more readers and fans from one of the most popular genre lately (thriller, crime stories).

    For me, as for someone who loved his remarkable “Pet Semetary”, “It” or “The Stand” (I believe that you might enjoy that last title), and so many other horror novels and stories, “Mr. Mercedes” was a huge dissapointment. Just as “Doctor Sleep” or “Under The Dome” was. In my opinion, Stephen King is trying to become more popular but this popularity and recognizability among non-horror readers comes with a great cost.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed reading your review. 🙂


    • Hi Bombeletta,
      It sounds like you are very familiar with Stephen King’s work. I’ve seen a few movies based on his work, and that is about it until now. Mr. Mercedes just seemed too cliche-ed and stereotypical as a detective story for me. As you say, some of his earlier work was probably more original.

      There are writers that I like that you probably wouldn’t care for, and there are writers you like that I probably wouldn’t care for. That’s the way of the world, and it is fine with me. Vive la difference! 🙂


  2. I haven’t read anything but Carrie by King but I came across an interesting article written by B.R. Myers in which he names Bag of Bones as a very well written book. I really like this article. It’s not new but still interesting
    In any case. I’ve read a few of the books Myers suggests and liked them all, so I will give Bag of Bones a try.
    Stephen King actually does not see himself as a literary writer at all.


    • Hi Caroline,
      Thank you so much for the article by B.R. Myers. There is probably not enough room here to explain all of the ways I totally disagree with him, but I will give it a shot. Myers praises the good old-fashioned adventure novel and dismisses many modern writers as simpering, self-conscious, vague, and ‘literary’.
      The main point we disagree on is that he seems to think that writers should be straitjacketed in some old style that worked well for classical novels, and that since modern novels don’t follow this style they are a piece of crap. There I disagree. I see literature (and I do see the ‘literary’ as a good thing) as a living thing that changes over time. I don’t like all modern writers, and I don’t like all classical writers. Modern novels like ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson and ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers are just as great to me as those vaunted classics of Myers.
      I appreciate it when a writer tries to do something new with the novel. Of course the word ‘novel’ means ‘new’, so actually that definition defeats Myers’ whole argument. I say bring on new ways of seeing the world, and let’s not be restricted by the past as Myers would have us. Yes, I like Maugham and Isherwood just as Myers does, but I also have been delighted by ‘White Noise’ and ‘Mao II’ by Don DeLillo which Myers uses as one of his bad examples.
      I could go on and on and on, but I won’t.


      • You’re welcome. I thought you’d find it interesting. I did but that doesn’t mean I agreed with him in every case. Still I’m with him when it comes to pompous metaphors. I think he was tired of books being lauded just for that or for using empty metaphors. Some of the authors he really doesn’t like are authors I find great. I’m all for innovation as well but maybe some more plot-driven novels are too easily dismissed. His rant is clearly directed against well-established American authors and I’m grateful that he mentioned some Japanese authors I had never heard of who proved to be real finds.


        • Hi Caroline,
          I suppose Myers is reacting against all the late 20th century philosophies such as deconstruction, post-structuralism, semiotics, etc. I never had any use for those philosophies either. Also he seems to be reacting against Raymond Carver minimalism. I sort of remember when Myers’ essay came out in 2001. It was a big deal then and probably did lead to more plot-driven novels since then.


  3. Tony, I so agree with you about Stephen King. I find him unreadable, and isn’t it tiring to be told pop fiction is as good as literary fiction? It just isn’t. I do have a King book the New York Times Book Review hailed as lit, something about time traveling to fix the Kennedy assassination, and guess what? I very much disliked King’s style and gave it up after 100 pages. What King does is fine. People love his books. That’s fine. But, heavens, it isn’t literary!


    • Hi Kat,
      Pop fiction is a good phrase for what Stephen King does. ‘Mr Mercedes’ has all the impact of the 763rd comic book superhero movie this summer which I’m sure is opening this week in theaters everywhere. It is certainly not something that could be mixed up with real literature, as some of the major reviews seemed to be trying.


  4. Posted by Evie on June 25, 2014 at 7:15 PM

    I think deeming King one of America’s two finest novelists betrays a depressing lack of reading. The reviewer would lose all credibility with me.


    • Hi Evie,
      That reviewer would lose all credibility with me too. That is why I was sad to see these major reviewers trying to slide Stephen King into the ‘finest writers’ category where he certainly does not belong. It lowers my opinion of the reviewer as well as the publication. He’s a best seller writer which has little to do with writing good fiction.


  5. King is about plot, not character. I read him as a teenager and enjoyed him, but I read him for the plot and the set piece scenes, some of which to be fair were very well done. He’s not where my reading is now, and in any event he’s moved over for some years to psychological horror which is a genre that simply does nothing for me.

    Finest writer is an odd way to put it. He’s very good at doing what he aims to do, which is a meaningful measure of skill, but he’s not aiming to write fine literary prose which finest writer sort of suggests.

    I saw Pacific Rim recently. It’s a fun action movie, generally well directed and with some great set pieces scenes. It’s not though Tarkovsky and it isn’t aiming to be. If you said it was one of the finest movies of recent years that would be odd, if you said it was one of the better Summer blockbuster movies of recent years that would be much more sensible – and even helpful if you were in the mood for a Summer blockbuster but not sure which one.

    So, saying Stephen King is a very effective writer of horror and psychological horror is both fair and potentially useful. He’s not a literary novelist though and he’s not trying to be. It’s not a failing that he doesn’t write good literary fiction, it’s a success that he does write good horror fiction.


  6. Whichever reviewer dreamed up the idea that Stephen King as one of our greatest writers would have no credibility for me. He’s a skilful writer certainly and comes up with interesting premises for books, but great? No way.


    • Hi BookerTalk,
      Yes, Stephen King is skillful at what he does, but he writes entertainments rather than creative or insightful novels. I suppose that reviewer at the Express just went way overboard in hyping Mr. Mercedes. I don’t like it because it belittles writers who are actually writing literature.


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