Stephen King finds himself in a unique situation: as he approaches his 60th novel, every book he releases is charting, his backlist is selling enviable amounts and a devout fanbase want more of the stories he is famous for telling. So how does he surprise his readers and draw new ones in? How does he, as the writer, surprise himself?
Over the past few years, King has experimented. There was a sequel to what is arguably his most famous novel, The Shining; 2013’s Doctor Sleepeschewed the snowed-in torpor of the original in favour of a story that never took its foot off the pedal. He has written the Bill Hodges trilogy of crime novels – Mr Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch – in which he intended to shun the supernatural element (and stuck to this promise for nearly two of them). And last year’s Sleeping Beauties, written with his son Owen, was a more literary endeavour than his books usually are.
From description alone, The Outsider sounds as though it could be King by numbers. When Terry Maitland – baseball youth coach, family man, all-round good guy – is accused of the horrific murder of a young boy, he is arrested and the town turns against him. (As seemingly every character says at one point: “He coached my son / grandson!”) The case is driven by Detective Ralph Anderson, a man who liked Terry and can’t believe that he would commit such an atrocity, but who also knows that all the evidence points to him being guilty.
The story switches from King’s graceful head-hopping third-person narrative to a transcript of official statements from key personnel in the prosecution’s case, a formal change that nods to the statements and newspaper extracts King used throughout his debut, Carrie.
A well-researched, finely tuned crime-cum-legal case novel forms a good chunk of the book, as Detective Anderson and the state prosecutor amass their evidence. They are then presented with a curveball: Terry doesn’t just have an alibi, he has been caught on video at a talk by Harlan Coben in another town at the exact time the murder took place. Unnecessary cameo aside, it’s a genuinely intriguing mystery, one that uses many of the tropes of both so-called “grip-lit” thrillers and more conventional forensics-driven crime fiction.
Then, as so often in King novels, the rug is pulled out from beneath the reader’s feet: the airtight case remains airtight, but so too does the alibi, until Anderson, with the help of Holly Gibney, on loan from the Bill Hodges trilogy, starts to unpick Terry’s story.