by Stephen King
Heartland America is rocked to its core with the discovery of the body of eleven-year-old Frank Peterson in Stephen King’s latest novel, The Outsider. Flint City, Oklahoma is the average American small town. Nothing awful occurs there. People tend to know each other. One of the cornerstones of this community is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, and one of the town’s most beloved people. When fingerprints implicate Maitland in the murder of the boy, he is swiftly arrested. Things quickly take a turn toward the peculiar when other evidence appears putting Maitland hours away from the crime scene at the time of the murder.
As with his Bill Hodges trilogy, King continues to blur the line between horror and police procedural. Introduced is a new protagonist, Detective Ralph Anderson, who fills the role once taken by Hodges. While Hodges was a bit of a gruff detective, Anderson is a man who simply wants to do his job and do the right thing. He is a family man who shows a bit of the lighter side of police work, at least when compared to Hodges. Demanding Maitland’s arrest and despite other evidence proving his innocence, Anderson is certain he has his man:
An amazing but ultimately explicable act of legerdemain? Ralph didn’t see how it could be, but he didn’t know how David Copperfield had walked through the Great Wall of China, and Ralph had seen that on TV. If it was so, Terry Maitland wasn’t just a murderer, he was a murderer who was laughing at them.
The scenes in the first half of the novel between Anderson and Maitland, once a coach to Anderson’s son, are some of the tensest of any of King’s past work. These two men once believed in each other, with the horrific events tearing them apart and neither man daring to back down on the question of Maitland’s innocence, or lack thereof. In interviews, King has said he was inspired by the idea that individuals working with children are often some of the most respected people in any town, but once something is revealed indicating a secret that shows them harming children, nobody is more reviled. This change unequivocally happens to Maitland, with King turning him into a martyr and making the reader care about him and his family. Readers should find themselves feeling sympathy for Anderson as well, despite his insistence that Maitland is the one behind the crime.
King often has large casts of characters, and The Outsider is no different in that regard. Besides Maitland and Anderson, the reader will see how affected by the murder citizens of the town are. Most of the characters appear likable in some fashion, from those on both the Maitland side and Peterson side of the case. Though not a major aspect of the story, the collapse of the Peterson family is one of the sadder parts of any of King’s stories. The lack of focus on the Petersons make the scenes where they do appear even more upsetting and intense.
As with many of King’s works, The Outsider shows his talent for showcasing friendship, and bonds tightening between strangers to overcome evil. Despite some of the subject matter covered in his stories, King often has moments of sweetness between his characters once they begin to get closer:
“What you’re feeling… and I’m feeling… that’s normal. Reality is thin ice, but most people skate on it their whole lives and never fall through until the very end. We did fall through, but we helped each other out. We’re still helping each other.”
The plot soon goes off into unexpected directions in the middle of the novel, around the time the supernatural aspect kicks into high gear. This change in style from procedural to King’s usual flavor of the macabre brings a familiar tone from past stories. Longtime King fans will be served their King comfort food, with typical King-isms like characters referencing culture from the author’s youth, despite the story being set in modern times and despite their ages:
“Ralph found himself remembering an Alfalfa quote he and his brother used to giggle over when they were kids: You only meet your once-in-a- lifetime friends once in a lifetime.”
These usual King references have their charm, and fit nicely into the universe King has created over his four decades plus career. The way characters speak in the King universe can often come off as hokey, but this serves to disarm the reader before the horror creeps its way in. Discussions of times long gone are not the only “references” mentioned, as actual connections to other novels appear, including a tiny reference fans of The Dark Tower series will enjoy. King, known for multiple connections between stories, re-introduces a major character from the Bill Hodges trilogy, who joins the larger group in their fight against the mystery surrounding the case.
Readers beware, as the appearance of the character from the Bill Hodges trilogy coincides with vital spoilers for Finders Keepers and End of Watch, the second and third novels of the trilogy. Outside of those reveals, and despite the character connecting the trilogy to it, The Outsider stands alone and can be fully understood and enjoyed without reading about Hodges and his exploits.
Though not as tightly paced and with a finale less epic than 2014’s Revival, The Outsider should be enjoyable to King fans and is a quick read despite its 560 pages. The strongest part of the story is the mystery element, which is showcased in the first half of the novel. Over the last decade, King has made a bit of a transition toward both the thriller and mystery genres, with one-off classic horror tales like Revival being sprinkled in. As with the Bill Hodges trilogy, The Outsider is a solid combination of these genres. This mixing of genres serves multiple masters, as fans of classic King will like the otherworldly elements of the second half should they not care for the mystery parts in the first half. If a sequel is never produced, the idea of surviving characters making future appearances is still a welcome one.
Michael Feeney is a book reviewer and pop culture junkie from the Philadelphia area. He is an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction.