Mr. Mercedes focuses on the consequences of ignoring what women have to say.
The story begins with a group of job-seekers waiting in line for a job fair. We’re introduced to Janice Cray, a woman so desperate for work that she brought her baby with her to wait through the frigid night. Without Augie Odenkirk (the man standing behind her in line) saying a word, she explained why it was necessary to bring her daughter along. She defended her decision and responded to each unspoken thought that crosses his mind: babysitting was too expensive, there weren’t any nearby family members to watch her child, and yes, she needed a job that badly. He accepted her explanation and warmed up to her for the brief amount of time before they were run down by a Mercedes.
While brief, this intro sets precedents for the plot. First, the majority of people make assumptions about women based solely on surface level observations. Second, women are always aware of this judgment and constantly defend themselves from it.
The killer, Brady Hartsfield, preyed on this widespread dismissal of women. He victimized Olivia Trelawney in a way even crueler than running the crowd down with her car. He used technology to steal her Mercedes and consequently affiliated her with the crime. The detectives refused to believe that she hadn’t left her keys in the ignition despite her repeated assertion that she would never lose track of her keys. In true misogynist fashion, they based their assumption of guilt on their personal dislike of her. The police found her to be haughty, nervous, and unfriendly, and these character traits were enough for them to condemn her. Together, the police and the press deemed Olivia to be partially responsible for the massacre for forgetting her keys and equipping the murderer with the weapon he needed.
But the fact was that she did not forget her keys that day. Brady knew it, he knew she was being unfairly blamed, and he used this knowledge to erode at her sanity. He haunted her with the ghosts of his victims and made her doubt her own complicity in the murders. She was a good person with a touch of neurosis and was driven to suicide. She killed herself due to the judgment the police doled out to her and from the psychological manipulation of Brady.
Had the male detectives listened to Olivia Trelawny instead of hounding her with suspicion, they would have avoided the deaths of Janelle Patterson, Deborah Hartsfield, Olivia herself, and the near mass murder of the crowd at the pop concert.
But, the cops themselves are not all bad guys. Ret. Det. Bill Hodges is depicted as a late-blooming hero after gaining perspective on his treatment of women. His shoddy policework became apparent as he retraced the inspection that he and his partner Pete Huntley had led. Bill becomes ashamed of their incompetence as more evidence came to light; evidence they would have been able to locate had they taken Olivia seriously. His shame was what set him apart from the inept cops as it allowed him to acknowledge and learn from his mistake. His ex-partner was the other kind of cop, holding fast to his stubborn interpretations of events no matter what new evidence came to light. Even when Bill confronts his ex-partner with new information absolving Olivia of any absent-mindedness, Pete cut him off with a curt “bullshit.”
But like I said, Bill was a late-blooming hero, and his dismissal of women echoed later in the book when he laughed off Mrs. Melbourne. She alerted him that the ice cream man was making an unusual number of loops through their neighborhood and that he “looks suspicious.” Instead of taking it seriously he rolled his eyes about it with a male neighbor. Later Bill is stopped cold when Jerome identifies Brady as the Mr. Tastey man:
A terrible question surfaces in his mind, like one of the snakes always lying in wait for Pitfall Harry: if he had paid attention to Mrs. Melbourne instead of dismissing her as a harmless crank (the way he and Pete dismissed Olivia Trelawney), would Janey still be alive? He doesn’t think so, but he’s never going to know for sure, and he has an idea that the question will haunt a great many sleepless nights in the weeks and months to come.
His realization that he was ignoring the words of women and the damage it was causing is what gave him enough self-awareness to become a bona fide hero. Through his inclusion of Holly, a person he initially found weak and unstable, the concert-goer’s were saved and Brady was apprehended. By valuing her contributions to the investigation as well as respecting her different perspective, their inspection progressed quickly and they were able to stop Brady before he triggered the explosion.
Holly followed hunches and applied knowledge that Bill and Jerome simply did not have. Holly was the true hero of the story, and Bill became a hero by realizing the ramifications of his past mistakes and embracing Holly as an integral part of their team. The villains of Mr. Mercedes were those that had utter disdain for women: Pete and Brady.
To remind readers that this lesson extends beyond the book itself, Stephen King used the real world as the plot setting. Clear distinctions are drawn between this and the rest of his novels as the others are used as cultural references. There are flashes of self-awareness in mentions of Pennywise the Clown and Christine. This book is further grounded in the real world with discussions about bum fights and the Laci Peterson case. King is putting up a billboard with bright, flashing lights that “THIS SHIT HAPPENS IN THE REAL WORLD.” And furthermore, “ONLY ASSHOLES DISCOUNT WHAT WOMEN HAVE TO SAY.”
This was a fine detective story and an even better endorsement against sexism. Well done, King, well done.