Stephen King’s latest novel returns to the slightly ambiguous space of End of Watch, in more ways than one – primarily because it sees the return of Holly Gilby, the slightly autistic right hand woman of Bill Hodges (who was himself, you’ll remember, the proud frontman of King’s Bill Hodges’ trilogy, Mr Mercedes, Finders Keepers and the aforementioned End of Watch), but also because this is a Stephen King novel in which supernatural things happen (of course) but are, for much of the novel, disputed by pretty much all of the characters in the book.
The Outsider opens with the public arrest of Terry Maitland, an English teacher and high school coach whose prints and DNA have been found all over the scene of a brutal local murder. More than that, a half dozen or so people all saw Terry at various points during the afternoon of the murder, escorting the victim into a van, later covered in blood, seemingly drunk on his own blood lust and not caring who saw. Except Terry was also out of town, with a handful of fellow teachers, and was recorded asking the author Harlen Coben a question at the same time he was supposed to be, you know, committing a heinous crime. “This is impossible,” Jeannie Anderson, the wife of the local law enforcement says. “I think you’ve reached the heart of the problem,” her husband replies.
You get the sense, at least in the early part of the book, that King is interrogating our modern penchant for trial by media, with Terry – a man previously beloved of the community – quickly transformed into a pariah (a hysterical scrum on the courtroom steps is particularly well done). The vast crowds that witness his downfall know nothing of the details of the case and yet that doesn’t stop them waving signs, spitting, screaming at the man’s wife, pushing people over. When the central conundrum is established – how can a person be in two places at once? – the job of the novel is to explore the Holmesian dictum of: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Except for many characters in the book (The Outsider is one of King’s ensemble pieces, a la It, another book it has a lot in common with), it takes an almighty wrestle to accept the improbable.
Without hopefully giving too much away, it turns out something like the Maitland case had happened before, seemingly reasonable people snapping to commit unspeakable crimes whilst to all intents and purposes elsewhere, with fully functioning alibis that were steamrollered by the unstoppable force of DNA evidence. A small group of the committed, befuddled and those willing to suspend disbelief gather, as a dark figure starts to loiter within the precincts of what might or might not be dreams (‘Salem’s Lot-like – there are certain key scenes from ‘Salems Lot echoed in The Outsider), and others, fearful, easily persuaded sorts, start to come into the orbit of the good guys as they start to get closer to the answers.
As a seasoned reader of Stephen King what do you need to know? Well, first and foremost it’s a monster book. Second, and crucially, he does not drop the ball. This is a book that powerfully maintains right up to the end. We think it’s better than all of the Bill Hodges’ trilogy (and we liked those books a fair bit). There are nods and echoes (we mentioned It, which has bubbled up to the surface again after the recent film adaptation, and the way in which the kids are allowed to beat the creature first time around definitely resonates here) but there are also, astonishingly, strange new twists (we say astonishing because it is astonishing that, at the age of 70, however many books in, he continues to produce books that stand shoulder to shoulder with some of his best) – the climactic scene in an underground cavern, for instance, the comedic touches Holly brings to bear, the almost X Files-like appropriation of Mexican cultural boogeymen.
Any Cop?: It’s a robust thriller, a solid page turner, a genuine scarer and the kind of book you’ll rip through at a pace. One of our favourites of recent years.