Stephen King’s latest novel, Mr Mercedes, is dedicated to James M. Cain and described as ‘a riveting suspense thriller’ — a phrase so closely approaching 100 per cent semantic redundancy (a non-riveting thriller? A thriller entirely free of suspense?) that it tells us precisely nothing. All it does is declare that the reader will keep turning the pages. Which we will. That’s what King makes us do.
Except Mr Mercedes isn’t, on the surface, a thriller; and you can bet that the consensus will be that King is writing what will be called ‘off-piste’. It’s a slender book, by his standards — only 400 pages — you can get it in your briefcase. There’s nothing particularly weird. No supernatural horrors; no reanimated corpses, things in drains, Greek fates materialising in lab coats. Mr Mercedes is — on that same surface — a ’tec-plus-chase story.
There’s a mad — properly; anyone with his back-story would be mad — killer, who ploughs a stolen Mercedes murderously into a crowd of poor folk queuing up at dawn for a cynical political jobs-for-all bullshit exercise. Then he hunts the owner of the stolen Merc to suicide. And then it gets worse.
The side of good is led by Kermit Hodges, a retired detective, now sitting in front of the TV, toying with the idea of eating his gun.There’s a curvaceous blonde who, quite believably, falls in tender erotic love with Hodges. There’s a black kid, Harvard-bound, sharp as a tack, whose whole family have white-folk names except for the dog, Odell.
And everything is known. Not that far into the book, we know whodunnit, we know wotidunn, we know why, we know everyone’s background and what’s coming next. Except, of course, we don’t, because King shares a skill and a sleight-of-pen with J.S. Bach himself. In both cases we know to expect the unexpected; but when the unexpected happens, it’s not the unexpected we were expecting.
King gets little critical attention. The problem is that he falls between two schools. He’s too popular for serious critics to expend time on, but he’s also too popular to ignore. So what he does — which is really rather interesting — goes largely unremarked. He is a gothic writer, taking our darkest fears and exaggerating them until they almost implode under the pressure of their own horrific absurdity. Nobody can do it quite like Stephen King. But he’s a man of his age — which is a visual one — and his weakness is his single point of view. That’s essential for the camera, but displaces the great strength of the novel: its ability to handle multiple points of view with graceful complexity.
So King isn’t really a novelist. Rather, the very scale of most of his books, as well as his single viewpoint, tell us that he’s a story-teller: one you’d have listened to for hours, as the sun set and the gulls cried on the dockside at Piraeus. His is the churn and flow of words of a man, not writing, but speaking to his audience, watching them and holding them. He is a great performer, a rhapsode in the ancient mould; but as a novelist, he never quite becomes invisible. We listen to — read — him not to know what happens next, but to know what he does next. It’s always him. And it was probably just the same with Homer.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16. Tel: 08430 600033. Michael Bywater is the author of Lost Worlds and Big Babies.