”Do you always know who did it when you sit down to write?”

A terrible crime has been committed in Flint City. Ralph Anderson, one of the town’s three police officers, has a prime suspect and decides to make the arrest a public affair. The popular Coach Maitland, uncomprehending, is brought away in cuffs in the middle of a game, in front of a big crowd and his family. He is just as stunned as Anderson is sure of his guilt. It’s a perfect, vivid example of building conflicting loyalties in the reader. What is one to believe? 

As events unfold, interspersed with witness protocols that certainly points to Maitland being the head suspect, this sense of ambiguity only deepens. Along with his family he seems a victim of a terrible mistake, but if guilty of the vile crime he is in fact a monster. What is one to believe…?

It’s one of those books that grab you from the get go and pulls you in, skipping between the various victims of the obscene crime, including the family of the murdered boy, whose suffering has only begun. Those parts offer some of the book’s best prose, wise, unexpected and moving perspectives on tragedy and grief.

“They watched without talking, each in his own way exploring the edges of the hole that had appeared in their lives, so as not to fall in.”

But the suspect and his family also draw sympathy in their plight. Here, everyone is a victim. The tragedies of The Outsider are manifold. The crimes destroy surviving family members and people’s good name. It’s the final insult added to the injury, how seemingly innocent suspects become the object of hatred and anger. 

The sudden introduction of elements that seem otherworldly do little to lessen interest but may prompt the reader to wonder what kind of book they are reading. The answer will become clearer with each chapter. Genre aside, it’s most definitely a solid page-turner. It hooks you. It’s also damn spooky. The phrase ’straws for eyes’ alone is enough to give one shivers. But like any detective story worth reading, it’s also an excuse to send people around, meeting other people, asking questions from witnesses and incidentally painting little portraits of life outside of the limelight. And King is, of course, very good at that. 

In its attention to detail, The Outsider can occasionally also get … tedious. There are times when points are belaboured. Like the last Hodges book, it’s also a bold mix of the pragmatic and the supernatural, and may not be to everyone’s taste. For my own part, I’m frankly not exactly sure how I feel about it. But meeting Holly Gibney (from the aforementioned Bill Hodges books) again is great, and King once more excels at portraying a character inherently nervous and uneasy about human interaction, but very brave. Around her, a band of unlikely friends will form, bringing Bram Stoker’s Dracula to mind in more ways than one. 

At the end of it all, The Outsider is more akin to Doctor Sleep than Mr Mercedes. It’s a both moving and harrowing story with a thrilling climax. Whether or not you entirely “buy it” may be a matter of taste.