By Stephen King
Scribner. 576 pp. $30
Reviewed by Karin Slaughter
Reading a Stephen King novel is like climbing behind the wheel of a classic American-made car. You're in for a terrific, pacey read with the kind of character development that has kept King firmly among our country's greatest writers for decades. He knows how to throttle a fine-tuned story into a shocking, stomach-clenching thrill ride. Every downshift is artfully timed so you don't realize you're heading into another tight corner. His scene transitions are as smooth as Corinthian leather. He's as much an American icon as the '68 Mustang Fastback or a classic red-and-white Plymouth Fury.
All these glories are on full display in his latest mystery-horror hybrid, The Outsider. The twists and turns make for a fantastic read. As with most of King's work, The Outsider is an exploration of good and evil – except this time, skepticism blurs the lines between the two. Terry Maitland is by all accounts a solid family man, a beloved Little League coach, and, suddenly, the main suspect in the horrific mutilation and murder of a young boy. The physical evidence and eyewitness testimony against him are incontrovertible, though completely at odds with his reputation as a husband and father who for years has been a pillar of his insular Flint City, Okla., community.
Detective Ralph Anderson is ready to send Maitland to death row for his unspeakable crimes. It's only after he interrogates the suspect that he realizes his once-airtight case has sprung some holes. Ralph is the kind of cop we all hope is out there: He wants to arrest the right person, not just a suspect. When the evidence changes, when the stories don't hold up, he doesn't make excuses. He questions his concept of the truth.
That Ralph trusts all of his misgivings with his wife, Jeannie, adds a nice layer to the narrative. King has always excelled at exploring the complexities of marriage. Choosing to give Jeannie such a pivotal role is almost as rewarding as the denouement. She is not simply an anodyne set of feminine features who serves as a box to check more than a character, nor does she always agree with her husband. Here's Jeannie after Ralph's sleepless night: "As his wife, she couldn't ask the questions that this prompted: If you had such doubts, why in God's name did you act the way you did? And why so fast? Yet, she had encouraged him, and so maybe she owned a little of his current trouble."
Jeannie then helps Ralph talk through the finer points of the investigation. Clearly, she has been his rock from the beginning, and there's a reason for that. Ralph really listens to what she has to say. Even when he doesn't agree with her, he respects her opinion. In fact, all the good guys in this novel share this one trait in common: They respect the women in their lives. This sentiment pays off. It's Jeannie who first intuits the truth at the center of this seemingly unsolvable mystery, and her questions eventually put Ralph in front of the one woman who can help him catch a child killer: Holly Gibney.
Holly's entrance into the narrative is where the story takes off. Of all the characters, she's the one who makes the pages turn faster. It was the same in Mr. Mercedes, in which she also was a late entry, and the subsequent novels in the Bill Hodges trilogy. Here, we see Holly fully realized as a woman driven to stop the forces of evil. To give more away would spoil the story, but lovers of the previous books should know that Holly stands fierce on her own, even without her beloved Bill.
King hasn't really brought his characters into the present day. No one really texts or seems to know about the camera feature on their phones (or that photos are geo-targeted and time-stamped). A woman in her early 40s wonders whether John Lennon, murdered 38 years before, was still alive when she started living with her husband. A man within kissing range of 50 fondly recalls "a rhyme from his raucous teenage years: Shave and a haircut … you bet! Sung by the whorehouse … quartet!" when surely a "Bohemian Rhapsody" reference would have been more appropriate.
Does this time warp matter? It's Stephen King. Of course it doesn't matter. No book is perfect, but King is reliably closer than most. He has always excelled at writing about real people tested by unreal situations, whether it's told in the unbroken narrative of Dolores Claiborne or via the mental lockboxes of Doctor Sleep. With The Outsider, if you can ignore the dated references, you're in for one hell of a ride.