“People had the mistaken idea that Poe wrote fantastic stories about the supernatural, when in fact he wrote realistic stories about abnormal psychology.”
An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.
As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.
Stephen King, who is a known master of horror and psychological thriller storytelling, has experimented, in his latest offering, with a story that steps away from his usual trail of magic but retains the style, wit and allure that his works do.
Bird’s Eye: The story opens, as with any murder mystery, the crime, presenting it through the lens of eye-witness statements given during the police interviews. With fast pacing and rapid fact-style narration, interspersed by dramatic moments involving the Maitlands (family of the accused) and the Petersons (family of the victim), the story is relentlessly gripping. The high-point in the story sets in first when the case gets turned on its head with the discovery of startling evidence (as the blurb suggests), and again when Holly Gibney from the Bill Hodges trilogy joins the ride. Although I have not read the trilogy yet, I can see why many regard Holly a beloved character from the trilogy. As the story nears its end though, some of its steam could be perceived as lost, with the end almost anti-climactic. But it is only partly so, in my opinion. Let’s delve deeper, shall we?
The Plot: While the first two-hundred odd pages focus on the mystery purely from a police procedural standpoint, the reader gets presented with various facets of the crime and its alleged perpetrator, Terry Maitland. The ramifications of the crime on his and the victim’s families are well-crafted, and the voracious appetite of the media for covering the news is brought out, painting almost a guttural image. Skipping the spoilers and curveballs, both of which are plenty to keep you turning the page, we come to the end- the final face-off between the Outsider and Detective Anderson (and Holly!). Viewing it as a standalone moment of catharsis, it is underwhelming to say the least. The confrontation did not justify the build-up to that point. Pair that up with two unnecessary deaths and a deranged villain who has an absurd motivation to do what he did, and you have a pretty “meh” end. Further, the resolution of the story is something you’d see from a mile away, knowing what you would while reading. However, we must delve a little deeper to understand why this story still works.
The Subtext: I love subtexts in any story, be it a novel, TV show or a movie. It’s what makes a story enjoyable beyond the story itself, and offers some kind of a message (calling it a moral lesson would be too preachy), if you will, to the reader. While the plot is about good vs. evil, the real evil according to me is not the Outsider itself, as is in any King novel. Throughout the story, as it takes us through different settings, mostly rural, there is a constant reference to political red-belt, the conservative underbelly, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, their rhetoric, Black Lives Matter, and the scavenging behavior of the media. The characters constantly even call the media as “vultures” (as have other movies and TV shows in the context). At the heart of it all is a social experiment to see how fake news really impacts a close-knit society. The murder itself is a metaphor of fabrication. Yes, Frank Peterson was brutally murdered, but by who exactly? Different versions exist. The possible, the impossible, everything is laid out on the table for all to see and judge. The differing perspectives, the constant inner battle that Anderson faces whether to believe the version he trusts or the version others trust, and the conviction that Holly holds in her theory, are both a brilliant take at how our own society perceives and ingests information in this day and age. The reminders to social media and other hip-terms that King slides in (though sometimes annoying) serve as little breadcrumbs. It is quite plausible that the term “outsider” itself could imply that the evil of fabrication is the real outsider to us. The one that divides and judges.
Characters: Detective Ralph Anderson is clearly the protagonist of nearly one half of the book, supported by a strong cast of characters. I loved the fact that, despite being a detective, he is not the typical drunkard with family issues, although another detective in the book has this exact problem (as if to compensate for the lack of it). For once, it was fun to read about a guy who is healthy, sane, loves his wife who loves him back (their relationship is goals, by the way) and has a son who loves them both. Kudos to that! Coming to Holly Gibney, the other protagonist who makes an unexpected entry into the plot midway and ends up shouldering the entire story by the end, was my favorite. Not only was she relatable with her social awkwardness, but her love for movies and pop culture was really interesting to read about, especially when her nerdy personality aids in cracking the case (some might argue it is a trope, and it is, but one that I enjoy). The other characters are pretty convincing and realistic, but in the grand scheme of things, do not quite stand out as much. And before we get to the verdict…
Some of My Favorite Quotes from The Outsider:
“A person did what a person could, whether it was setting up gravestones or trying to convince twenty-first-century men and women that there were monsters in the world, and their greatest advantage was the unwillingness of rational people to believe.”
“And I believe in A. Conan Doyle, who had Sherlock Holmes say, ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’”
“People are blind to explanations that lie outside their perception of reality.”
“When the mind’s filter disappeared, the big picture disappeared with it. There was no forest, only trees. At its worst, there were no trees, either. Just bark.”
“There’s also a force for good in the world.”
“Thought only gives the world an appearance of order to anyone weak enough to be convinced by its show.”
The Verdict: This book is definitely worth buying and reading, for it has all the signature qualities of a Stephen King novel. Although it veers a little away from being purely a work of horror fiction, there definitely are elements which might spook you enough to keep the lights on at night. However, it is more of a police procedural on one side and a subtle take on the current political turmoil of the country on the other side. The Outsider, called in the book as “the one who eats sadness”, is in the end the bane of fabrication itself, and this novel shows us how lies and deceit are powerful enough to destroy lives…destroy what we know as happiness.