Thursday, 31 July 2014

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

Former Detective K. William Hodges is nearing the end of his tether.  Since he retired from the city Police Force, life has lost its edge;  there is nothing meaningful to relieve the boredom of his days, most of which are spent watching inane TV shows, eating junk food and drinking too much. 
Some days are worse than others:  on those days he contemplates suicide and sits in front of his TV with his father’s gun by his side – until the day he gets a letter, purportedly from a man who mowed down a line of jobseekers in a stolen Mercedes, a case that was still unsolved when he retired.
The letter writer seems to know a lot about Bill Hodges, including details of his first name (Kermit); information about his farewell bash (it was a drunken riot of fun!); and even more chilling:  insider knowledge of Bill’s suicidal thoughts.  Is this monster a mind-reader?  How does he know so much? 
The general tenor of the letter is designed to increase Bill’s feelings of worthlessness, to push him into that last act with his father’s gun:  ‘it would be too bad if you started thinking your whole career had been a waste of time because the fellow who killed all those Innocent People ‘slipped through your fingers’.
But you are thinking of it, aren’t you?  I would like to close with one final thought from ‘the one that got away’.  That thought is:
Just kidding!
Very truly yours,

Once again, Mr King takes the reader into the dark places of minds and hearts with his usual effortless skill.  In this latest opus there is nary a hint of the supernatural for which he is so famous; not a spectre in sight:  instead he writes of the monsters that contemporary society creates who walk among their unsuspecting victims disguised by spurious normality -  as here, where the Mercedes killer is revealed early in the plot as Brady Hartfield, dutiful son of an alcoholic mother and hard worker at two jobs, one as a computer technician, the other driving an ice cream van.  What could be more normal; (even a little sad – the sacrifices that boy makes for his mother!) he works super hard at blending in with everything and everyone – why, he’s practically invisible!
But not infallible.  Contrary to his expectations, his letter has given K. William Hodges (Det.Ret.) a huge boost;  the depressive clouds have parted – his mind, always keen, has something to grapple with again:  start playing the game, Mr Mercedes.  Let’s see who wins!
As always, Mr King provides his main protagonists with great supporting characters, in this case Jerome, Bill’s 17 year old lawn and odd job boy – who just happens to be black, highly intelligent and a computer whizz – but not half as whizzy as Holly, a true PC Maestro who unfortunately is plagued with ‘issues’.  They are Bill’s doughty assistants.  Their dialogue is perfect, crackling and comic (how I wish I could remember some of those one liners!) but it never distracts us from the horror and creeping suspense of a great story.  Mr Mercedes is going to strike again.  But where?  When?  And can they stop him?
Stephen King has once again held a mirror up to contemporary society, and it shows a chilling image, one that is very hard to look at.  Highly recommended.

The Liar’s Daughter, by Laurie Graham

Nan Prunty’s mother tells lies, and the biggest one of all, so everyone says, is the whopper that Nan’s father is none other than illustrious war hero Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, killed at the Battle of Trafalgar.  Nan and her mother Ruby Throssell live a hand-to-mouth existence in Portsmouth, and Nan’s childhood memories are unpleasant, for Ruby likes to drink;  when she is old enough Nan is called upon to earn grog money for her mother in very unsavoury ways, causing her to often wonder why, if her father was the man who vanquished Old Boney and the French so that the British could hold their heads high, she and her mother have to live by their wits.
Ms Graham’s novel spans fifty years of a fascinating period of European history;  from Nelson’s triumphs at sea to the war in the Crimea in 1855, by which time the great man is all but forgotten – except by Nan, whose search for proof of paternity has become obsessive, even though she has a family of her own, all of whom find her convictions tiresome.
Ms Graham’s characters are enormously engaging;  Nan and her mother are apples from the same tree but having said that, the story proceeds at a slow amble until Nan’s daughter Pru decides to apply as a nurse to Miss Florence Nightingale at the start of the Crimean War.  Then the action speeds up.  After several years of good nursing experience at reputable London hospitals, Pru expects to be accepted and is shocked to find that she cannot make the grade, not because of her efficiency, but because of her humble origins:  Miss Nightingale requires only young ladies of good family, regardless of their lack of experience.  Despite that, lower born practical women went at their own expense to the battlefields and made a huge difference, their origins notwithstanding.  In the accepted historical teachings of our day this has been understated to say the least.  Miss Nightingale is ‘The Angel of Scutari’;  ‘The Lady of the Lamp’:  no-one would gainsay that, but  Ms Graham may be sincerely thanked for scrupulous research and candid revelations of typical societal double standards of the time.  This little story is light as a soufflĂ©, but just as enjoyable.  Highly recommended.  



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