The Outsider has all the makings of a masterpiece but the author asks a little too much of the reader
Book review: The Outsider is one of Stephen King's best novels in a while
Stephen King is not the first novelist to write a book called The Outsider. His most famous predecessor is Albert Camus, if you accept that something in the original French title L’Etranger has been lost in translation: Wikipedia says “The Stranger”; Penguin publishing house says “The Outsider”.
Camus was an inspiration for many authors, not least England’s Colin Wilson whose own book The Outsider is a deeply personal critical appreciation of the alienated hero in literature. Wilson was thinking about Camus, Dostoevsky and Sartre, but also about himself: he worked by day in the British Library; by night he was sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath, separated from his family, his girlfriend and a sense of creative purpose. What began as a diary became a fragmented attempt to discover why Wilson “[felt] totally cut off from the rest of society,” – and why “an inner compulsion had forced me into this position of isolation”.
It is Wilson’s The Outsider that King quotes in the epigraph of his new novel of the same name, although he doesn’t name it explicitly, preferring instead to attribute the opening chapter, The Country of the Blind: “Thought only gives the world an appearance of order to anyone weak enough to be convinced by its show.”
Wilson could be aiming an arrow at the heart of King’s writing, which over the course of 60 novels and countless stories has convinced us that the quotidian surface of the world (brand names, cars, school, work, relationships) conceals wild demons that want to devour us, body and soul.
The Outsider, one of King’s growing number of crime novels, shuffles this pack of cards in new ways. Terry Maitland is the prime suspect in the torture, rape and murder of 11-year-old Frederick Peterson. His DNA and rare-ish blood are all over the crime scene and also in a white van that both victim and perpetrator were seen entering on the day of the killing.
The police, in the person of Detective Ralph Anderson, is so convinced they have the right man they arrest him in full view of spectators at a baseball match. Any qualms Anderson feels are overcome by sheer rage at the callousness of the crime. What really matters is that no one bothers to talk to the suspect or inquire about trifles like alibis.
Which is a shame, at least for Anderson and District Attorney Bill Samuels: because at the moment that Peterson was being killed, Maitland was many miles away in Cap City. Reliable witnesses will attest to this fact, which is also verified by film – Maitland was recorded at a book reading by Harlan Coben. At one point he even asks a question.
Later, the same unbreakable forensic evidence that convicts Maitland of murder in one location exonerates him in another: his fingerprint is found on a book. “How weird can this get?” Maitland will ask himself. “Weirder,” he is told by Holly Gibney, who should know from her work in earlier King horror-crime hybrids like Mr Mercedes.
The premise feels like a hangover from the Golden Age of Crime Writing, when authors like Agatha Christie got their kicks from navigating their way out of impossible scenarios.
King does it brilliantly, albeit in his own inimitable style. When Jonathan Ritz describes the horror of finding Peterson’s body, he ratchets up the tension by digressions into his marriage and memories of his high school nickname (Ritz Cracker). Here is King’s modus operandi in a few pages. Lull us into a false of security with gentle ramblings about the everyday, then stab us in the back with nastiness that surpasses understanding.
What imbues The Outsider’s puzzle with emotional depth is not the murder but the murderer. Maitland is a cornerstone of a tight-knit community, not only a teacher but a baseball coach to generations of boys. The brutality of the crime is only the start of Maitland’s apparent transgression; he has betrayed the trust of everyone he knew and who trusted him. Or has he?
While this friction between the ordinary and extraordinary introduces the novel’s strength, the same tension comprises its central problem. Having crafted his “impossible” crime with such painstaking attention to detail, King whets one’s appetite for a suitably satisfying explanation. It is worth recalling Ronald Knox’s 10 rules for a Golden Age crime.
While the list is marred by the racist anachronism of “No Chinaman must figure in the story” – in reality a clumsy assault on cliched villains – Knox essentially outlines fair rules of engagement between author and reader: “The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover,” and “No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
Number two of Knox’s calls to logic is: “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.” Here is where King stumbles, not just in the face of outmoded critical mores but the intelligence of modern-day readers. For the second-half of The Outsider drifts inexorably towards a soup of police procedure and supernatural.
What made King’s premise so unnerving was an agreed set of fundamentally realistic possibilities and characters. The subsequent introduction of a shapeshifting bogeyman (the outsider) seemed less a matter of philosophy (although that Wilson epigraph strains towards one) than a last resort. Unable to untie his own knotty premise, King simply severs it with an incredible, if metaphorical monster.
What The Outsider tramples on is King’s fine sense of the commonplace and unexpected. His best work (The Shining, Carrie, Christine), prepared you for the incredible with hints and nudges. Here you feel like a pile of mind-boggling objects has fallen onto your head from the top of an otherwise boringly usual wardrobe. This is a shame as The Outsider is one of King’s best novels in a while.
Sadly, all this meticulous work was deflated by a video nasty intended to “haunt [our] dreams for years to come,” but whose unmasking suggests a bad impersonation of Michael Jackson’s video for Black or White. Sometimes, a book’s bite is worse than its bark.