The Outsider by Stephen King

Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

I was really surprised when I’d calculated that I’d never actually read a Stephen King novel before, apart from one volume of The Dark Tower serious that I picked up in bored desperation when melting in a windowless hostel room in Kuala Lumper. The sweltering conditions of the barely air-conditioned hostel was actually a pretty good place to read that particular book, read out of context of the rest of the series, not to mention while in concentration-zapping heat, so I only have vague memories of what it was even about. Bits of it certainly took place in a desert, the conditions not unlike what I was experiencing.

The Outsider is set in southern Oklahoma, between early July and mid-August. Thanks to our recent heatwave I’ve had another immersive reading experience, feeling the stifling heat being made even more oppressive under the horrors of the crime that the story opens with. A young boy has been found killed and mutilated, and overwhelming eye witness reports, hastily acquired fingerprints and DNA samples all point to one culprit – little league coach and all round pillar of the community Terry Maitland. The outrage over the homicide paired with the utter disgust over the perpetrator spurns the local police department on to conduct a very public arrest on Terry, whose disbelief over the Outsiderarrest first disgusts then begins to puzzle the detective in charge, Ralph Anderson. The department’s 100 percent conviction in Terry’s guilt is then slowly toppled when he assures them of his innocence and says he has a rock-hard alibi to prove it.

The first three parts of the book are your typical detective novel fare, albeit with a mystery to be solved that is so absurd (and taking into consideration that the writer is Mr. King), there’s no other explanation than the supernatural. Try telling that to the detectives, lawyers and family and friends of the victim and the accused though. The insistence that there must be a reasonable explanation for Terry Maitland being in two places at the one time ushers in one preposterous explanation after another – it’s a crime a long time in development, including a double and an accomplice; a doppelganger has seized the opportunity to frame Terry Maitland; evidence has been tampered with; the witnesses who can back up Terry’s story have been compromised somehow. The only explanation that the investigators refuse to believe is that a real-life nightmare is unfolding.

But unfolding it is. Strange things continue to happen. Sights of a man with an ‘unformed face’ with ‘straws for eyes’ by the children of the accused. The appearance of another unexplained man, with terrible burns and tattoos all up his forearms at Terry’s arraignment is put into disrepute when his image doesn’t appear on video. The uncovering of discarded clothes covered in a weird and disturbing liquid. More and more evidence points towards the Terry Maitland mystery being more than meets the eye, and when a couple of private investigators enter the fray the pieces that were missing begin to come together in the most unexpected way.

There’s nothing like a murder mystery with a twist to beat the heat, especially if it’s fleshed out (as it were) by believable characters with very human traits and flaws. Ralph Anderson’s hot-headed and personal response to the belief that Terry Maitland perpetrated the horrible crime leads him to the public arrest that he will bitterly regret. In his efforts to atone for his mistake he teams up with both Terry’s lawyers and his own colleagues whose gut feelings indicate that there’s much more afoot than a cut and dry case. The witness interviews and meetings between the defence and prosecution teams are unfurled in such a way as to make the reader an investigator herself, not to mention the benefit of the extra glimmers of evidence that only the reader is privy to.

The chapters within the sections are very short, just the device to keep the pages turning, even if you’re gasping for a break to fix yourself a cool beverage. The story is very well controlled, and while the pay-off may not be as satisfying as the lead up it’s still a rollicking read, with an unexpected deepness of heart that I wasn’t expecting. Make no mistake, it is a supernatural thriller, but even the greatest sceptics among us will appreciate it for the insight into the all-too-real-evil present in this world that it ultimately is.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 25th July 2018

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