"The Outsider" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Hodder & Stoughton (UK) | Scribner (US)
Written by Stephen King
2018, 496 pages, Fiction
Released on May 22nd, 2018
After the disappointingly bloated Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King makes a fine return to form with The Outsider, a genuine page-turner with little excess baggage, weighing in at a lean (for King anyway) 475 pages. This latest novel has much in common with the Bill Hodges Trilogy, which begins with Mr Mercedes and concludes with End of Watch. With almost two-thirds of that tremendous trilogy, King played it straight, generally written as crime thrillers with no supernatural entanglements until book three. Outsider follows a similar pattern, both stylistically and ultimately through his outstanding character Holly Gibney, who connects the different books together. I was delighted to see Holly appear in the second half of this latest work and her arrival reminded me how much I had previously enjoyed the Hodges trilogy, particularly the middle book Finders Keepers.
It is too easy to give unnecessary spoilers in reviewing this book, so I’m going to cover the plot briefly and talk around it. As I have already said it is much shorter than his previous novel; it is not weighed down by excessive numbers of characters which plague Sleeping Beauties, nor unnecessarily complex backstories. It is to the point, has a tremendous initial hook, and keeps up the pace until the end, with most of the plot unfolding over an intense two-week period. Some recent King novels have also hindered by disappointing conclusions, however, The Outsider holds up well and most long-term King fans will be very pleased with how he closes it out. The Bill Hodges Trilogy is also a crossover hit with crime readers, the first 200 pages of The Outsider will certainly have that crowd purring, the supernatural direction the second half takes, perhaps less so.
Set in Flint City, Oklahoma, many of the early stages of the novel are told via transcripts of various interviews between Detective Ralph Anderson and members of the public who believe they have seen popular Little League Coach Terry Maitland before and after the rape and murder of an 11-year-old boy. They have so much evidence, the police decide to arrest him towards the end of a crucial championship baseball match in front of a shocked crowd of 1,500 people. It is a deliberate public humiliation.
The circumstances of the emotional and very public arrest soon come back to haunt the police department. In no time at all, Terry’s lawyer proves without reasonable doubt that he was seventy miles away in Cap City, with fellow English teachers, watching a book event in which crime writer Harlan Coban (nice touch Mr King!) was the keynote speaker. Thinking it must be hoax, the police dig deeper and realise the Coban talk was filmed and Terry even asked a question which was recorded. This is the great hook of the book: how can someone be in two places at once?
How is the impossible possible is the big question which stumps a perplexed police department. In the first half of the novel, Stephen King has great fun building up irreputable evidence on both sides, ranging from eye-witnesses, film and DNA. The main character Ralph Anderson is a fine creation, a pragmatic and dedicated policeman who bitterly regrets leading the public humiliation of the Little League Coach after prematurely leading the arrest. King uses Ralph as a doubting Thomas to break down both sides of the mystery and this creates a tremendous page-turner which is very hard to put down.
Flint City is a small town, and everybody knows Coach Terry, who has mentored the kids of hundreds of locals. He is also totally perplexed by his arrest, and the sequences in which he spills out his alibi is terrific writing, as the DA simply refuses to believe his story against the mounting evidence of his innocence. The book is supported by a wide range of engaging and entertaining characters on both sides of the fence, including other police officers, private investigators, innocent bystanders and potential victims.
I’m not going to say too much about the second half of the novel and the supernatural developments, but even before we get there the signs are on the wall; foreboding nightmares and potential boogiemen lurking under the bed, all bread and butter for Stephen King. This is a very easy book to read, the impossibility of the first half will suck you in and it will be devoured over a few evenings.
I’ve already said there is no flab on this work, especially in comparison to some of his other recent efforts, however, there are too many occasions where the characters sit around repeatedly discussing the impossibility of the events surrounding them. I appreciate this is good old-fashioned detective work, but the reader is presented with the same facts on too many different occasions, often by different characters and ultimately it becomes repetitive. This is a very small gripe in an excellent novel.
King bringing back Holly Gibney is a masterstroke. In the Bill Hodges Trilogy her character really flourishes, from mousy failure dominated by her mother to a woman who can stand on her own two feet. Long term fans will be delighted to see Holly continue to develop here. It’s worth noting though that King obviously presumes his readers know what went on in the other novels featuring Holly and Bill Hodges, as when he refers to them gives plenty of spoilers for those who haven’t.
The inspirations for this tale are spoken about throughout, from Edgar Allan Poe's William Wilson to Agatha Christie and even Sherlock Holmes, not to mention Mexican folk legends and their own interpretation of the boogieman. All mixed together, Stephen King has come up with a novel to savour.