Stephen King, master of horror, is a delight to read even if fright isn’t your thing. He’s such a consummate writer. “Mr. Mercedes,” his newest release, does not disappoint – either as another journey behind the veil of terror, or as a tale well told.

The story turns around Brady Hartsfield, a young man and a denizen of the deepest chambers of hell, who still lives at home with his mother. The counterweight to Brady is Bill Hodges, a good but imperfect man with a tendency to drink too much and a failed marriage to prove it. Hodges is a police detective with a distinguished career in which he broke scores of cases, but he is haunted by a crime he failed to solve before he drifted off into retirement and a shadow life without meaning.

As Hartsfield sinks increasingly into the horror of his own brooding pathologies, Hodges slides deeper into despair. They’re a perfect match for becoming wedded in an archetypal battle between good and evil. It is this pairing that King exploits to explore human character – its frailty, its resilience and its adaptiveness.

The opening chapter of “Mr. Mercedes” is King at the height of his game. It is laced with hope and haunting. A job fair at the Civic Center starts drawing luckless citizens the night before the doors open, all eager to be first in line. Random fate places one stranger next to another. Throughout the night, humanizing, tender mercies spontaneously occur. As night begins to lift, a thick ground fog rises. As gray dawn appears, a dark Mercedes-Benz with Hartsfield behind the wheel emerges from the fog like a roaring beast and mows into the gathered assemblage, crushing and maiming, killing eight. Then it disappears back into the fog. The only salient detail captured by surviving witnesses, other than the make of the car, is that the driver wore a mask – that of a grinning clown.

The unidentified perp of the unsolved crime is bannered in the media as “the Mercedes Killer.” As for the car, it was stolen from a rich widow, Mrs. Olivia Trelawney. She ultimately becomes yet another victim, blamed, ostracized, and tormented for the fact that it was her car that was the instrument of mayhem. She subsequently takes her life.

And Bill Hodges? In the months that follow the crime, he succumbs to sitting in his La-Z-Boy recliner, drinking beer and watching television shows all day, occasionally lifting a .38 Smith & Wesson from his lap to stick the barrel in his mouth, contemplating a dark exit of his own. This seems his fate, until he receives a sinister letter from the Mercedes Killer, mocking him for failing to solve the crime. Hartsfield taunts Hodges, urging him to go ahead, pull the trigger.

The letter has an unexpected effect. Instead of toppling Hodges into the abyss, it gives him reason to live. It reignites his talents, instincts and passions as a detective. He wants to catch the man he calls Mr. Mercedes in the worst way.

The novel has a wonderful cast of supporting characters that add rich dimensions to the landscape. There’s Janey Patterson, the beautiful sister of the dead widow. And Janey’s unstable niece, Holly. And Jerome Robinson, the bright kid who lives next door to Hodges. These three become willing accessories to Hodges’ extra-legal investigation into how exactly the widow Trelawney was tormented into killing herself and what act of terror Mr. Mercedes has devised as his next headline grabber. In this mix of characters there is also Deborah Ann Hartsfield, Brady’s alcoholic mother – who is as creepy as he is.

The tension is ratcheted throughout by an exchange of messages between Brady and Hodges via a secret Internet chat room where both labor to trigger lethal missteps by the other through miscues and taunts. This exchange prompts the greatest revelations of character and a fierce willingness of each man to go to whatever lengths necessary to claim victory. What further fuels the tension is that both Brady and Bill are simultaneously the cat and the mouse.

Stephen King, the consummate literary cat, however, makes no missteps. Fortunately for readers, he wins yet again.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” “Dream Singer” will be published this summer. Contact him via: