With John Updike dead and Philip Roth retired, Stephen King might just be America's greatest living novelist. Certainly no one else has written quite so many good novels and more than their fair share of great ones.
Mr Mercedes, his latest novel, may be just a straight thriller but it is also the best thriller of the year. King's greatest skill is coming up with conceits that are unerringly interesting. The novel is a cat-and-mouse tale. It is not a whodunnit as we know who did it from page one. It is not a "whydunnit" as we are given the protagonist's motivations almost from the opening page (he is mentally ill and evil).
Instead, it is an exercise in suspense. Brady Hartfield drives a car into a line of unemployed people queuing up for a job. Eight people are killed, 12 are injured. Bill Hodges is the policeman investigating the case. He fails to find the perpetrator and, when Hodges retires, Hartfield begins to torment him in an Internet chatroom, warning him that he will strike again.
For King fans, there are all the usual in-jokes and references (the clown Pennywise from It, a nod to Christine, the first of King's automobile-driven horror stories) but the previous novel this most resembles is Misery. In that book, King addressed the darker side of the symbiotic relationship between author and fan; this time, it is a similar struggle between cop and villain. At a deeper level, it is about good and evil again but King treats this conflict with such freshness that it feels wholly original.
Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, is a clear influence here, from the echoes of Psycho in Hartfield's relationship with his mother to the low-level black comedy running throughout.
A scene where Hartfield accidentally poisons his mother with a drugged hamburger should not be funny but the sheer mischievous glee with which King writes makes it so.
What is it that elevates this, what might sound like a fun thriller, to the level of art? It is partly the way King uses the narrative to explore a variety of theological, philosophical and religious questions. King is as invested in the world of his bad guy as the world of his cop but he manages to get deep into Hartfield's psychology while keeping the character repellent. As he struggles with his feelings of being alone in a godless universe, King carefully delineates the events that turned this average man into a homicidal killer. King's social realism is another powerful factor. No one is as good at depicting contemporary America and this book captures the hardships of those both good and evil struggling with daily life in the early 21st century. This is not the first time King has written a straight thriller but it is by far his best and it is recommended to crime buffs and King fans alike.