The Outsider by Stephen King
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I’ve been reading Uncle Stevie for about 35 years now, and there’s been plenty of peaks and valleys in my fandom. This time out he found a whole new way to disappoint me.
A young boy has been brutally murdered, and all the clues point directly at Terry Maitland. This is shocking because Terry is a happily married family man and all-around good guy whose coaching of youth sports has made him one of the most popular and respected people in town, and there’s never been the slightest hint of any kind of criminal behavior from him. However, with both forensic evidence and multiple witnesses there is no doubt that Terry abducted and killed this child so Detective Ralph Anderson has him arrested in the most public and humiliating way possible.
The problem is that there was so much evidence pointing at Terry that Ralph didn’t bother nailing down his whereabouts when the crime was committed, and Terry has an iron clad alibi that makes it impossible for him to be the murderer. Yet for every piece of evidence that shows that Terry couldn’t have killed the boy there’s another equally damning one that positively shows that he must have done it. How could a man be in two places at once?
The infuriating thing about this book is that the first half had a lot of promise. King seems to have been inspired by the Harlan Coben style of thrillers whose hooks generally revolve around circumstances that seem impossible. (In fact, Uncle Stevie even acknowledges this by actually having Coben himself be a plot point in the book.) And this works for a while as King builds up the scenario with an intriguing mix of clues and witnesses that both absolutely prove that Terry must be the murderer while also making it utterly impossible for him to have done it.
There’s a huge problem with that though. When Harlan Coben writes his books the resolutions are based in reality, not the paranormal. So for each one he has to come up with a plot that leaves you scratching your head and then provide a solution to it that’s satisfying. What Uncle Stevie did here is to create the puzzle part which he adds layer after layer to it, but then he essentially just says “Oh, yeah. It was a supernatural monster. And now here’s a completely different book about trying to catch it.”
You can certainly do a story that mixes police investigations with the unexplained. The X-Files is the obvious example of this, but that series would generally show us the weird stuff in the opening scene every week then Mulder would try to unravel it for the rest of the episode. We all knew going in that the supernatural and aliens were on the table so there’s no point in spending time to make the viewer think there might be a non-fantastic answer even if Scully usually tried her best to find it.
Since this is a Stephen King novel with a red-eyed monster on the cover a reader should know from the start that something spooky is in the mix. Yet, he gives us absolutely nothing about that angle for the first half of the book. He plays it straight like he’s writing a regular crime thriller, and he put in so much time and effort on it that he actually managed to make me forget at times that the ultimate answer would probably be a ghoul of some kind. So it’s like he’s teasing us that there is some kind of Sherlock Holmes style solution to this puzzle, and I found it incredibly unsatisfying when the supernatural stuff showed up to explain it all.
The extra sad thing is that Uncle Stevie has done this plot before, and he did it better there. The Dark Half has a main character who is suspected of murder, there’s physical evidence showing he did it, and it’s only an airtight alibi that saves his ass. Yet, in that book we know from the jump what’s going on so it all flows together naturally, and it’s just one piece of a larger story rather than half a novel spent developing a mystery that is essentially not a mystery at all when you remember that you’re reading Stephen King.
The second issue I had with this is that this is linked to the Mr. Mercedes trilogy. I didn’t care for those books, and if I’d have known that this had anything to do with them I wouldn’t have read it. I thought that series was done so to have that show up at the half way point here as a surprise and then play a major role in the proceedings felt like false advertising. Another irritating aspect is that (And this has spoilers for End of Watch) (view spoiler)[ I found the Bill Hodges character in those books to be a reckless jackass who did nothing except get innocent people killed before he finally died himself. But the goddamn hero worship of him by Holly here made me nuts. He was a shitty detective and nothing special as a person. I’m glad he’s dead, and I didn’t need constant references to how awesome she thought he was. (hide spoiler)]
At over 500 pages it’s also way too long with not enough happening except for a whole lot of yackity-yacking going on amongst characters. There’s a tremendous amount of repletion with people restating the facts about the initial problem of Terry being in two places in once, and then during the monster phase there’s endless jibber-jabber speculating about it. Dialogue has never been a particular strength of King’s, but all his worst habits are fully on display here so it’s extra bad that the book mostly consists of conversations.
I also found myself nitpicking a lot of stuff here. Now that he’s over 70 years old Uncle Stevie seems to struggle writing younger people these days. Terry is described as being under 40 yet at one point his wife is remembering how they used to listen to Beatles albums in his college apartment, and she idly wonders if John Lennon was dead by then or not. A guy who is 40 today was born in 1978. John Lennon was murdered in 1980. So Lennon had been dead for almost two decades by the time Terry was in college. That’s the musing of an aging Baby Boomer, not someone under 50.
Ralph also seems to be somewhere around 40 years old yet when he’s trying to figure out a restaurant name from a scrap of paper he has to go to his wife to have her run the internet search for him. I’m pretty sure that a detective whose job involves research and information gathering is capable of using Google. And it’s not even that Ralph is anti-tech or computer ignorant because he uses an iPad regularly through the book. Again, this seems like an older person’s way of thinking about the internet, not someone who would have been using computers since his first day with the police department.
I also found the main break that finally gets the plot moving toward the supernatural stuff to be highly unlikely. [Ralph has been in contact with the cops in Ohio about trying to track the stolen van that Terry supposedly got on a trip there. Yet, somehow even though a guy who works at the hospital Terry was visiting his father in was also accused of a high profile child murder, no one ever notices the link before Holly? Wasn’t Ralph supposedly working on tracking Terry’s movements in Ohio? You’d think he'd look for similar crimes as part of that, but he apparently doesn’t know how to use Google so maybe that explains it. (hide spoiler)]
King tried doing plain thrillers with the first two Bill Hodges books, but he struggled mightily with plotting them so he threw in the towel with the third one where he went full-on supernatural again. This one feels like he thought he had a great idea for another crime novel, wasn’t really sure how to resolve it, started writing it anyway hoping he’d figure it out, and then when he couldn’t he just threw up his hands and made it all about a monster. I won’t be reading another crime based book by him. Unless he tricks me again.
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