In Flint City, Iowa, there’s been a truly horrific sado-sexual murder of a child, and all the evidence seems to point to one of the most popular men in town, Terry Maitland, who’s coached everyone’s kids at baseball and often turned their lives around for the better. So FCPD detective Ralph Anderson sends in his stalwarts to arrest Maitland in the fullest possible glare of publicity, in front of the crowds at the climax of a crucial Little League game.
Only trouble: As is almost immediately discovered, at the time of the murder Maitland was seventy miles away at a conference on popular fiction. There’s even video all over the intertubes of him asking an audience question of Harlan Coben at the crucial moment.
Before Anderson and his colleagues can properly start to sort this out, the victim’s older brother guns down Maitland on the courtroom steps . . .
So far, so good. This is Stephen King does Ed McBain, with maybe a dash of early John Grisham thrown in, but it’s all done with such panache and authority as to become very much King’s own. Having just come off one of Paul Halter’s impossible-crime detective novels, I was intrigued to uncover how King was going to solve the self-set problem of the perfect alibi. Was Maitland a culprit who’d engineered this fiendishly cunning scenario? Or was Maitland the innocent victim of someone else‘s fiendish cunning?
I settled back for another 350 pages or so of delirious bamboozlements.
And instead I got a supernatural horror story — moreover, a supernatural horror story that seemed far too full of echoes of other Stephen King novels I’ve read. Worse still, an overly long supernatural horror story, overly long by perhaps 150 pages. After a while I had to clamp down on my distracting editorial urge to make mental notes of all the passages that could and should have been excised. Even after I’d done that, I faced a long final tract during which my dominant emotion was the desire that the book would end.
Make no mistake: Stephen King is a mighty fine tale-teller, and if anything he’s gotten better in his later years. Had The Outsider been written by any other writer, I’d probably have abandoned it two-thirds of the way through; as it is, King manages to make even tiresome material very readable. But the copout of defaulting from such a wonderfully ingenious (and brilliantly told) setup to a dreary supernatural explanation seemed to me unforgivable.
But what of The Outsider as a horror novel? I used to read quite a lot of horror fiction — for a while it seemed as if a lot of the best fantasy was being done in the horror field — but I can’t really say the genre is in my blood, so to speak. Even so, it seemed to me that the novel’s climax wasn’t especially horrific or scary, with the menace being perhaps rather too easily dispatched; in other words, for this reader at least it all came as an anticlimax . . . on top of the bigger anticlimax of the novel having seemed to take the easy way out by resorting to horror in the first place.
Unless I missed something (and I’m not going to go back and check), there’s something of a continuity error in the novel’s home stretch. A character called Jack, a lousy cop, is a habitue of a strip joint called Gentlemen, Please. Another character, Claude, is a bouncer at Gentlemen, Please. The two of them therefore know each other, and I’m pretty sure this is somewhere explicitly stated in the earlier parts of the novel; there may even be a brief conversation between them. Yet later on there are indications galore that Jack doesn’t know Claude at all — he’s “a guy with a goatee,” or some such, in one place. (I can’t go into further detail on this without committing major spoilers.)
If you’re a Stephen King fan, you’re definitely going to find a great deal to reward you here; the storytelling has that familiar strength. If you don’t normally read much horror, The Outsider may also be for you. If you’re expecting the spectacular mystery story the blurb leads you to anticipate, perhaps your reaction will be more like mine.