Can a man be in two places at the same time? That’s the central mystery of the new shudderfest from Stephen King, a macabre and gripping yarn that starts out like a crime thriller.
A heinous act shocks the quiet (and totally made-up) town of Flint City and all the evidence points to one of its most celebrated citizens, baseball coach Terry Maitland.
Veteran detective Ralph Anderson and district attorney Bill Samuels think their case is so airtight that they make a public spectacle of arresting the suspect – fully aware of the circus that will follow.
Maitland deserves it, after all.
Only thing is, he happens to have an airtight alibi.
And that is where the subject of bilocation comes in.
Anderson and Maitland’s attorney Howie Gold (and their respective circle of associates, family members and friends) soon suspect that something much more complex is going on here – and we are fully immersed in their growing doubts.
Not surprising, given that King is highly accomplished in the art of sinking his claws into the soft flesh of our throats and dragging us down and into the printed page.
The mystery here is a juicy and perplexing one, and we find ourselves yearning for a magnificent flourish at the denouement.
As Anderson, Gold and associates (was that a law firm on TV somewhere?) dig deeper into the puzzle, King begins to skirt familiar territory.
Eventually, even the most far-fetched theory begins to seem viable to some of the investigators. And by “far-fetched”, I mean “supernatural”.
I won’t spoil it by saying which side of the fence – real world or “King Literary Universe” – the story finally lands on, but let’s just say fans of his more recent work may find themselves grinning when they see where it plants its feet.
For as long as the mystery straddles that divide, The Outsider is one heck of a compelling read, with a couple of passages that left me seriously creeped out.
However, once the big questions are answered – much sooner in the reader’s mind than it is in the characters’ heads – it loses a bit of its drive and focus.
A bit too much time spent in the sad circumstances of the culprit’s victims, both past and future, weighs the tale down as it approaches its resolution.
I also did not care too much for the way King treats some characters as utterly disposable, though perhaps it’s his way of reinforcing the fact that matters in such grave situations can be … rather grave.
As for that perplexing mystery of being in two places at once, I couldn’t help but feel that King took the less rocky road in finding his solution. A real-life bestselling author who makes an appearance (sort of) in The Outsider might not be too impressed.
Still, even if the book’s second half is not up to the slick storytelling that comes before, it all adds up to a polished piece of work that showcases King’s strengths.
Foremost among these is his knack for conjuring vivid, raw snapshots of humanity, as he illustrates the devastating ripple effect which crimes like the one Maitland is accused of can have on all those involved, even peripherally.
Unfortunately, his occasional tendency to leave readers frustrated is also well and truly on display here; in this instance, it takes the form of some excessive exposition towards the end that defeats the impact of impactful developments from earlier on.
I shouldn’t complain too loudly, though, since The Outsider was certainly good for a few nights of lost sleep, faults and all.
Can an author be in two genres at once? King certainly tries hard, and for the most part, succeeds.
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton, horror/crime fiction