Stephen King (stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
When Frank Peterson’s young body is found, abused and mutilated, all of the eye-witnesses agree that the last time they saw him alive, he was with Terry Maitland, coach of Flint City, Oklahoma’s Little League team and all-round upstanding citizen. Forensic evidence also points to Terry, so Detective Ralph Anderson arrests Maitland in front of a massive crowd, during a big game. Which is fine, until Terry produces a cast-iron alibi, and Anderson begins to wonder if it is, in fact, possible for a man to be in two places at the same time. Something’s not quite right here, and Ralph Anderson finds himself at the heart of small group following the trail of an impossible killer from Ohio, through Flint City, and all the way to Texas, determined to stop this monster before it kills again, and ruins another innocent man’s life in the process.
The arrival of a new novel from Stephen King is always a highlight of the bookish calendar for Constant Reader. His latest novel, The Outsider, mixes elements from his more recent work with themes and ideas from some of his classic early novels to produce a novel that leaps genre boundaries and grips the reader from the outset. Part detective story, part traditional horror fare, it’s all King, and while it’s likely to irritate readers expecting more in the vein of Mr Mercedes, this is King doing what he always does best: telling the best story he can, and doing it through characters who become nothing less than convincingly real as the novel progresses.
As the novel opens, we are presented with a series of police interview transcripts designed to convince us – as they have already done for Ralph Anderson – that Terry Maitland is guilty of the heinous crime of which he has been accused. So we find ourselves in the same predicament as Anderson when Maitland produces evidence that he was out of town when the murder took place, and a number of credible witnesses – teachers with whom he works – to back up his story. But in Anderson’s mind, and that of District Attorney Bill Samuels, Terry Maitland is already convicted, his one-way trip to Death Row little more than a formality. It isn’t until it’s too late that Ralph Anderson starts to have second thoughts, to wonder how Terry Maitland could have been in two places at the same time, and why so much evidence points to him being innocent.
With the help of a State Police lieutenant, Maitland’s attorney and one of the investigators from Ohio-based private detective agency Finders Keepers, Anderson begins to trace the movements of a man who cannot possibly exist and who, it is becoming increasingly clear, killed Frankie Peterson and framed Terry Maitland. At this point, the straight detective novel that The Outsider has been disguised as for the first two-thirds of its length becomes something very different, and stretches that old Sherlock Holmes saw – “whatever remains, no matter how improbable” – to its limits.
As ever, King has his finger firmly on the pulse of what’s going on in the world around him, referencing everything from the Trump presidency, through movements like Black Lives Matter to the general willingness of many Americans to accept whatever they’re told, as long as it’s shouted loudly enough, and with enough conviction, and despite however much evidence might exist to the contrary. This is most prevalent during Maitland’s arrival at the courthouse, a series of events which drive much of the novel’s second half. Despite this man’s reputation, and despite the fact that many of Flint City’s residents have dealt with him directly through his teaching and baseball coaching, it doesn’t take much for them to end up baying for his blood, and throwing insults at him and his wife as he is led towards his arraignment.
As we move into the book’s final third, we move away from the “comfortable” environs of the detective novel, and deeper into the unknown regions that King examines so well. There are echoes of his sophomore novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, as Anderson and his ragtag group of believers meet to discuss plans for taking on this Outsider. A group of grown, otherwise sensible men (and, in this case, women) gathered together to discuss ways to tackle a supernatural being mirror Ben Mears and his own small group talking about how to rid their town of its vampire infestation. There are similarities, too, between the Outsider and Kurt Barlow’s progeny, not least the set of rules that define it and mark the boundaries of its powers. If you haven’t signed on for a new Bill Hodges-type novel, The Outsider provides a genuinely frightening Big Bad, and a reasonably satisfying resolution. That said, the key role played by Holly Gibney makes this an excellent, if somewhat bittersweet, postscript to the Hodges trilogy, expanding the post-metaverse universe or, at the very least, drawing that universe and the one that dwells within the shadow of The Dark Tower more closely together.
As a Constant Reader of almost thirty years, it’s difficult not to come across as gushing fanboy, but The Outsider is another excellent addition to the King oeuvre. Cleverly plotted, it’s a study in suspense and discomfort, King’s trademark narrative style serving to draw the reader in and carry them along for the ride. The echoes of earlier works prove that King has lost none of his ability to frighten or discomfit after more than forty years at the top of his game, while still remaining fresh and relevant, every book the perfect jumping-on point for new readers. Fifty novels in, Stephen King continues to captivate and entertain his audience; The Outsider is a must-read for new and old readers alike.