Most of what you need to know about Stephen King you could learn from his sex scenes.

There are two in his latest book - well, rather more than two, but there are two that stand out. Both are vivid; neither has the dead-eyed specificity of porn, but you're given sufficient detail that if you were so minded you could act out both with some precision.

The odds of you wishing to do this, I would prefer not to contemplate.

Because while one of these scenes is warm and humane - two characters the story wants us to like are opening the door to a possible happy ending, and having a great time in the process - the other is very deliberately repellent.


The book is a narrowly focused cat-and-mouse thriller, with a degree of inbuilt uncertainty as to who is the cat and who is the mouse. A recently retired cop, already well gone to seed, gets a taunting letter from a killer he failed to catch. He's galvanised: as the killer expects. This is, in fact, the opening move in a nasty game of manipulation, with the final goal of driving the cop towards suicide.

We know this because we spend somewhere between a third and half the book's length inside the killer's head. King writes in the narrow third person, predominantly from two points of view - that is, he jumps back and forth from behind his two lead characters' eyes, reporting on what they see and feel. His technique is impeccable, although he also combines present tense narration with a fairly high reliance on flashbacks, meaning the on-rushing flow of the story is constantly being broken in a way I found jarring.

But in the main and on the whole, King is simply a masterful storyteller. He's easy to read, though not, here, as hard to put down as usual. He reportedly began this book as a short story, and it feels almost too small to be a novel. Its shape and ultimate destination are clear from quite early on, which dilutes the suspense and leaves the characters to hold our attention. Or not. Which brings us back to those sex scenes.

An ageing man, likeable and down on his luck, gets an unexpected shot at a life with a gorgeous, wealthy, much younger woman. They have excellent sex. It's pleasant, but a bit too obviously an ageing male's fantasy and it left me rolling my eyes slightly. Meanwhile, a stunted disaster of a man crawls into bed with his ageing, drunken mother and relieves his urges, thus clearing his mind sufficiently that he can go back to planning murder.

This is a different form of fantasy, the fantasy that says, "Because this is unpleasant, it explains this man."

Deep psychology is not King's strength, though his characters generally have shoulders strong enough for whatever weight he needs to place on them. Here, the story is a little thin, and the characters have to carry a little too much. They have to carry the whole book. They didn't quite carry me.

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton $39.99).