Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King


Stephen King’s newest novel departs from his expected universe of supernatural Maine and plops the reader down into the depressed Midwest as unemployed people seeking a reprieve from their current situations line up during the early hours in hopes of finding something better at a huge job fair. As the queue grows with more and more people, the sad calm is broken by a madman — complete in clown mask reminiscent of the evil Pennywise from It — running them down with a stolen Mercedes.

The crime goes unsolved and it appears as if the perpetrator is entirely out of reach. That is, of course, until a recently retired police detective, who spends his days holding a handgun and considering whether he would look better without his cranium intact, receives a long and boisterous letter purporting to be from the insane driver. The novel continues with back and forth sections between the detective and the unhinged killer, who takes a playing card from the Norman Bates deck and then goes way beyond.

Mr. Mercedes is advertised as a game of cat and mouse rolling forward just as fast as that Mercedes at the commencement of the novel. Yet, if I hadn’t been determined to find out the ending and write about the novel as part of my more highly anticipated summer reads, I would have put it down and moved on. The novel felt sloppy and awkward. None of the characters were particularly appealing and the dialogue between them felt so completely forced, it was cringe worthy. There were parts that I liked: the beginning was indeed intriguing as the initial crime is laid out along with the potential for a new maniacal villain and the final chapters sped up as both sides were attempting to get what they wanted, but there was a huge chunk of the middle (and this being a Stephen King novel, a chunk is hundreds of pages) that floundered. I couldn’t help but think that this book would have been much better if an editor went in a cut out about half of it.

I rarely make such bold recommendations as this, but skip it. Skip it if you’re a fan of Stephen King; skip it if you’re just looking for an entertaining summer read. I’m glad I didn’t take it along with me as I travel this summer, because it would have immediately been chucked and a new full price book would’ve been purchased at an airport gift shop.

I don’t often read reviews of books before I read them, so when I went in search of what the critics had to say, I was baffled by the overwhelmingly positive reviews. I couldn’t help but wonder if we’re reading the same novel. Now that I have finished this 400+ page dud, I can move onto the growing pile of TBR books that I’ve had my eye on for the past weeks.

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

But there was always so much we didn’t know about people, lurking right below the surface where we couldn’t see it.

Secrets and kin are what tangle together the mysterious plot of Laura McHugh’s debut novel, The Weight of Blood. The story is told mostly from alternating points of view between Lucy, a seventeen-year-old girl living in the Missouri Ozarks, and Lila, her mother who disappeared sixteen years earlier when she was just a couple of years older than Lucy herself. The novel begins with the mutilated body of a local girl, Cheri Stoddard, whose corpse is propped up in a tree for all of the town to see. We come to find out that Lucy was Cheri’s one and only friend, and even that latter description seemed to be in flux. The murdered girl was often described as a “retard,” with most people treating her like a piece of trash much like her lifeless body eventually became. Cheri’s murder is what finally gives Lucy the momentum to find out what happened to her mother all of those years ago.

The heart of the novel lies with the premise that not everything is as its seems; the truth is found much deeper and usually in a much more frightening place. Lucy’s comforts and lifelong perceptions transform as she pulls back more of the story of Cheri’s murder and Lila’s disappearance. The insular town of Henbane where they all live in the Ozarks will feel backwards to us Yanks. Kin come first and outsiders are looked upon as threats. Some of the older folk had never seen “Negros” or “Orientals,” and when Lila shows up, half the town brands her a witch because she has an exotic look (dark hair, greens eyes, which happens to be the only description anyone ever gives about this new arrival to Henbane–an unfortunate, lazy cop out by the author) and she comes from a foreign place to the north called Iowa.

McHugh does an interesting thing with the novel’s structure. For the first part, there are alternating chapters between Lucy in the present and Lila in the past, allowing for a steady buildup to help explain pockets in the local mythology of Lila and the recent brutal murder of Cheri. As the book goes on, McHugh does add chapters that are told in third-person giving a different perspective from some of the other characters.

The town of Henbane, locked away in the Ozark Mountains, already has an unpleasant mood cast over it. Some of the natural landmarks are called Old Scratch and Devil’s Throat, obviously indicating that it is both a metaphorical and literal Hell. Violence, sex, murder, and prostitution are what make up this underbelly.

The secrets held beneath the surface are violent and unnerving. McHugh does a good job of concealing knowledge for just the right amount of time before letting Lucy and the reader in on the secrets that the townsfolk have been harboring. However, I was a little exhausted by the perpetual violence against women in this book. I know this is mostly due to the fact that lately we have just been so inundated with it in all forms of media and this is not the fault of the author. Luckily, the first-person sections of Lucy and Lila offer fully formed personal voices to tell their stories. The female characters, in general, are more developed than the men, which is a plus to alleviate this fatigue from the never-ending cycle.

The book was appealing and I certainly found myself whipping through chapters to see what new revelations would be detailed. Lucy is headstrong and doesn’t put up with the same bullying that her mother once did. For some of the men in the novel, women are meant to be locked in a box, whether this is a form of protection or for a more sinister reason. Lucy is always fighting against this and any taming that is tried on her is a failure.

The Weight of Blood definitely finds its strongest moments with Lucy and McHugh’s lulling descriptions of a place that is anything but calming. Overall, I enjoyed it and would definitely recommend the book (especially for people in True Detective withdrawal who need another injection of Southern mystery and superstitious backwoods types who are up to no good), but I can’t rid myself of the feeling that some of the characters could have been drawn with more detail and that certain confessions were given too easily, especially with ones that had been guarded secrets for over a decade. But in a way, its shortfalls can be overlooked for McHugh’s creation of a place that is anything but trustworthy and where “a man with clean nails hides his dirt on the inside.”

**The Weight of Blood was just released and is available from Spiegel & Grau.

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Shooting on the Sonnenallee

With only a couple of days left in Berlin, a friend and I turned the corner from the Sonnenallee in the Turkish populated neighborhood of Neukölln in search of late-night grub. It was here, while we were chatting away, that a man walked out from behind a car, stood next to us, and shot another man behind us several times in the chest (along with parked cars and building walls). My friend did not see the shooter clearly, but I did because I was turned to her and I watched as the handgun lined up with the height of her head.

I bring all of this up, because as I made a hot lemon yesterday to sooth my dry throat, I thought back to that night over a year ago. It’s a night that I’ve wanted to adapt into a short story for ages. But when I sit down to my computer, nothing beyond the words on the Sonnenallee are typed on the screen. I do not know what the form will take or if I’m not thinking about it from a removed enough place. For weeks following, I thought about how the man twisted around the car and found himself next to us. I did that thing you’re not supposed to do where you ruminate: what if I hadn’t left my gloves at home and we didn’t stop at the corner store so I could buy a pair of cheap ones, what if we went the other direction to get soup instead of making that turn to get pizza, what if that man had fired his shots earlier for the split second the muzzle was directed at us.

But back to hot lemon…it was what I drank immediately following the shooting. The polizei came quite quickly and my friend and I were told to wait in the bar at the corner. We weren’t allowed to order any alcohol. Besides water, all that was left was hot lemon and no one should drink water after something like this. Hot lemon is as close as we were allowed to get to comfort. We both drank them with plenty of honey and that was when I revealed my embarrassment. I had a bicycle with me that I pushed while we walked together. When we saw the shots and ran, I still pushed it until finally I hurled it aside as we looked for a corner to duck into. Also, being used to living in New York City where many films and TV shows are made, more than once I’ve seen warnings of ‘the sound of gunshots heard between 11pm-1am are for the filming of a television scene.’ Before we started running, I kept thinking: “where are the film cameras? where are the signs?”

a photo I took of a favorite part of the East Side Gallery at the Berlin Wall.

We spoke to the police at headquarters for hours. I had to lockup the borrowed bicycle on the same side street where the man was shot because it wouldn’t fit in the police car. My friend and I were there for hours; we were given two Mars bars and interviewed separately. I looked at mugshots. Nothing of them matched.

Any time I make a hot lemon, I think back onto this horrorshow. For months, I felt embarrassment and stress any time I squeezed the lemons in to a mug, scooping out stray seeds before adding the hot water. My anxiety shot up into my throat as the memory played on loop.

When it comes to literature and other arts, I am always fascinated by the way characters remember or misremember things. Of course, that man’s face is etched in my memory but it has faded. I’m not quite sure of the color of his clothes anymore but I remember the matte black of his handgun. When interviewed by the police, they told me my friend had said she first became aware that something was wrong was when I yelled oh, shit! I don’t remember this. I’m curious to know if I remembered it at the moment. This oh, shit! hangs alone as if it’s something that is not part of me or as someone else’s memory trying to make room in my own.

More recent literature like Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane or Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending explore traumatizing and complicated events from the perspective of older narrators. Their perceptions and agendas have changed in their present view. Things are more obvious and details have been conflated or understood.

I know I’ve rambled on for far too long, but bear with me. I’m sipping the remaining drops of my hot lemon now as I type and think more about this story that still hasn’t been written. I’ve written short stories about other past travel experiences (both fun and horrible–traversing the Swiss Alps on a Moto Guzzi vs. days after leaving Berlin for London, my only remaining pair of pants caught on fire). This one, however, is far more complicated. When I do try to write something, it comes out cold and police blotter-esque (just the facts, ma’am). Instead of writing, I find myself sitting and remembering the images and feelings on a loop.

I can’t help but think about Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove,” which is divided by testimonies and confessions of the various witnesses and participants of a samurai’s killing. I feel most akin with Akutagawa’s tale and perhaps, I should take a lesson from the structure of his story. There were many people on the Sonnenallee that night. I didn’t see anything that happened behind me, but there were surely people who did and conversely, they did not see the detailed and up-close description of the shooter like I had or where he walked out from behind a car (or was it a van?). Together, we could weave a complex, multi-point of view tale or on our own, each present a compelling, yet unreliable story. As a writer, I can usurp their points of view and craft them into something of my own making, choosing when to punch holes in the plot and when to present a view–whether skewed or reliable–of the focused action.

I do hope to write this story one day and perhaps, next time I try, I won’t stare blankly at my computer screen. From witnessing this bizarre and horrid event, I plan to piece together a story of remembering and misremembering. When I make my next hot lemon–or heiße Zitrone–I will for once think clearly or not…whichever leads me to where I need to go to write the story I want to get down on the page. I wonder if it will be something realist or if it will swim in a surreal space. I’m clamoring to find out.

post script

I never found out what happened to the man who was shot. The newspapers in Berlin were alarmingly quiet save for one short article  (my theory is that they don’t often report on immigrants’ concerns in Germany). In English, Sonnenallee translates as the Sun Alley, which seems bright in comparison to the dark night I was there. Also, in 1999 a German film was made called Sonnenallee, which from what I’ve read about it, falls prey to Ostalgie for the former DDR.

Murder on the Beach

One of my most popular posts was The Mysterious Bookshop. To catch you up to speed–The Mysterious Bookshop is a store in lower Manhattan that specializes in crime/mystery fiction. Today, one of my loyal readers (read: my mother), forwarded me an email with information about a similar store in Delray Beach, Florida. It is called Murder on the Beach. I’ve never been there so I can’t vouch for it but it looks like they have some great events coming up. If anyone in South Florida visits this store, drop me a line and let me know what you think. Enjoy!

273 Pineapple Grove Way | Delray Beach, FL | 33444 | 561.279.7790

The Mysterious Bookshop

I went on a fun adventure yesterday in lower Manhattan. I only recently ran upon information regarding The Mysterious Bookshop. For the life of me, I can’t remember how or where but all I knew was that I needed to make a trip.

Because I’m a stone broke writer, I told myself that if anything, I may purchase one paperback. Of course, this did not happen and I walked out of the store with 3 books.

  1. What’s So Funny? by Donald E. Westlake — A few years ago, I read The Hunter by Richard Stark (a pseudonym of Westlake’s). It was fantastic. If you are really interested in voice and stripped down prose, check it out.
  2. Entanglement by Zygmunt Miłoszewski — I saw the author speak at the Center for Fiction recently and the moderator seemed really taken with this young writer and his novel.
  3. Hitler’s Peace by Philip Kerr — I am not familiar with Kerr but I do love a good WWII thriller. The clerk said that Kerr was great but I wasn’t sure if I could invest in his monumental trilogy called Berlin Noir. If I like this little novel, I will venture back to The Mysterious Bookshop and take a look.

from Google

The store only sells mysteries and crime novels. The walls are stocked from floor to ceiling with books, both paperback and hardcover. Some are signed by the authors and vintage books (read: pulp) are displayed in the center of the room. You will find no hipsters here. This is for real fans of the crime genre and newcomers who are interested in a suspenseful tale. If you tell the clerks what you are interested in or you are brave enough to admit ignorance, the knowledgeable staff can lead you in the right direction. When perusing the shelves, I noticed names that stood out instantly (Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle) but of course the walls were littered with novels I knew nothing of.

from Google

Unlike the conglomerate bookstore experience one could get from a Barnes & Noble, The Mysterious Bookshop felt like the owner’s private library. I was comfortable gazing through the massive inventory and I wasn’t approached by anyone asking if I had questions. When I did have a query, I went to the clerk’s desk and he happily helped me there with the aid of a computer (sorry, I’m a curmudgeon who doesn’t like to be bumrushed the moment I enter a store). There was no coffee shop, there was no decorative birthday card section. It was just pure books. Simple and to the point. Unfortunately, the only downer was that like most independent bookstores (at least in NYC) the new books were priced at retail. I’ll let it slide this time because I’m a firm believer in supporting local booksellers but it’s a hard price to pay on a regular basis.

Also, check out their publishing imprint, Mysterious Press, that brings “classic works of crime to digital reading formats.”

58 Warren Street, New York, NY, 10007 

Crime Scene : The Festival of New Literature from Europe

Very few things can drag me to the godforsaken diamond district (and in the rain for that matter!) but I made my way to the Center for Fiction last night; also, the promise of free wine and pirogi at the reception was an added bonus. The event was entitled “The Shifting Scene” and there were two panels scheduled: Unconventional Police Protagonists and  The Nature of Evil. This evening was part of a larger literary fest called Crime Scene: New Literature from Europe. Both panels were moderated by B.J. Rahn.

The First Panel: Caryl Ferey (France), Jan Costin Wagner (Germany), Stefan Slupetzky (Austria), Dan Fesperman (USA–but fiction takes place abroad). The first panel was interesting and seemed helpful with the craft and technique of writing a really compelling sleuth. However different their novels and characters were, the panelists also agreed that their “police protagonists” were often unheroic or clumsy, were independent and shattered the ‘tough guy’ image, and used unorthodox methods.

The Second Panel: Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Poland), Anna Maria Sandu (Romania), José Carlos Somoza (Spain). Okay, so here is where everything gets far more interesting and heated. The second panel began speaking about the title, “The Nature of Evil.” Miłoszewski believes that humans are not evil by nature (maybe evil comes from circumstances?). Somoza countered with how evil is not generalized but specific to culture or the world of the book and that evil is connected to childlike instincts and losing one’s civilized veneer. Thus, began a back and forth between the two authors that probably lasted for half of the panel. But it was incredibly intriguing! One of Miłoszewski’s rebuttals was that evil comes from a shared human code and is not a specified interpretation. Finally, the moderator changed her attention to Sandu who spoke through an interpreter. She was the only author of the whole evening who’s protagonist was a woman. Although the moderator tried to get her to speak more about why she chose the female gender for her character, she seemed to always skirt around this question.

While shoving the last of a macaron into my mouth, I asked the woman standing next to me at the reception whether she liked the panels. Of course she did and like me, she particularly liked the second panel (The Nature of Evil). Again, we were on the same page and admitted to each other that we were naive to the panelists and their novels. We both thought that the one that sounded the most interesting and could be a wise choice for first book to read is Anna Maria Sandu’s Kill Me!. Our duo was turned into a trio when B.J. Rahn joined us. She was very intelligent and was a wealth of information. She thought Sandu’s novel was a good choice to start with.

All-in-all, I was glad I braved the rain and once I get a millisecond of free time, I have a new book to check out.