by Stephen King
Stephen King’s recent work has been distinguished by a growing, if not entirely convincing, relationship with crime fiction.
The most obvious sign of his interest was the trilogy comprising Mr Mercedes (2014), Finders Keepers (2015) and End of Watch (2016). Mr Mercedes’ blend of police procedural and gothic horror won King a coveted Edgar award, courtesy of the Mystery Writers of America. This trio was not the first of King’s crime output, however. There was also the pulp fiction verve of Joyland (2013). Going further back, there was the short story The Colorado Kid (2005), which became the charming if unsteady television series Haven.
King’s attraction to crime fiction makes perfect sense. Most of his novels feature the most horrific transgressions imaginable (murder, kidnapping, torture), albeit ones that defy the logic demanded by an earth-bound investigation. And this is the central challenge for King’s capaciously offbeat imagination when it comes to crime. His particular genius is for upending utterly ordinary worlds with extraordinary happenings: killer cars, cemeteries for the undead, ghosts in hotels. But if your creativity believes that anything is possible – if your criminal breaks the laws of nature – then you risk upsetting readers.
The main exception to this rule is Ireland’s John Connolly, whose long-running detective Charlie Parker chases evil through this world and beyond. Connolly’s success is partly a matter of style: his rich, lyrical prose is ideally suited to the gothic excesses of his plotting.
It is partly a matter of tactful uncertainty. Connolly may visit angels and demons on poor old Charlie, but you can never be sure whether the supernatural is real or a product of his grief-stricken imagination: Parker’s wife and young daughter were murdered.
What spoiled King’s recent crime trilogy, at least for this reviewer, was his inability to balance this same disjunction. The bravura opening of Mr Mercedes – in which a line of desperate jobseekers is mown down by a maniac driver – was all too believable. The same goes for his ageing, melancholy detective Bill Hodges. Breaking the mood was Hodges’ antagonist, Brady Hartsfield, who dragged the book into an unlikely pastiche of King’s Carrie (1974) – a perpetrator who could manipulate people and objects from within a coma.
One could read The Outsider – King’s latest venture into the crime world – as confronting this issue head on. The premise, which is both absorbing and brilliantly handled, goes like this: a young boy, Frederick Peterson, is brutally raped and murdered. Unlike King, I will spare you the appalling details. The prime suspect is Terry Maitland, which comes as a shock, and not just to Maitland, his wife and two daughters. Everyone in the community loves him. In addition to teaching English at the local high school, Maitland has coached little league baseball for years. In other words, he has been entrusted with generations of young boys, something that isn’t lost on Detective Ralph Anderson, whose own son benefited from Maitland’s kindly tutelage.
The crime’s ferocity combined with Maitland’s proximity to children sparks a reckless rage in the investigating team of Anderson and district attorney Bill Samuels. They are so convinced of Maitland’s guilt that they arrest him at the climax of a baseball game in full view of 1,500 spectators. Nevertheless, at the moment when they handcuff Maitland and drag him off to general disbelief, the officers have yet to talk to him or establish his whereabouts at the time of the crime – lapses that will come back to haunt them.
Such boldness is motivated by confidence as well as revenge. Maitland’s fingerprints and DNA have been found all over the crime scene. And a series of witnesses saw Maitland offering Peterson a ride in a white van which, once found, was also covered with his DNA.
So far, so realistic, so impressive. The first section is a fabulous piece of writing – King effortlessly establishes what is at stake, the central characters, the wider community and the nagging sense that something is up. Maitland notes: “He hadn’t felt right for some time now. Not quite.” Anderson experiences his own misgivings, not about Maitland’s guilt, but rather the wild way he went about the arrest, which has left him and Samuels open to question.
Slowly the niggles grow. Maitland seems eerily calm under interrogation; he reserves his concern for his family. The reason, we learn, is simple. At the time of Peterson’s murder, he was far away in Cap City.
Here, essentially, is King’s rub: can a murderer be in two places at the same time? It is a question worthy of the golden age of crime writing – the puzzles of John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie, who is regularly cited in King’s prose. King is far from the first modern writer to dabble in a classic “impossible alibi” plot. Salvation of a Saint (2008), by Japanese maestro Keigo Higashino, is propelled by a similar set-up. After Yoshitaka Mashiba is murdered, his wife, Ayane, becomes the prime suspect: Mashiba was about to leave her, after all. The sticking point is an alibi: Ayane was on the other side of Japan when he was killed.
King sharpens his own set-up with devilish skill. The same standard of evidence that damns Maitland also saves him. When both the police and his defence counsel prod his alibi, they find more than enough evidence to acquit. Maitland was attending a talk by Harlan Coben – one of many slightly clunky high fives to crime-writing gurus. A television broadcast not only shows Maitland in the audience, it captures him asking Coben a question. Three colleagues attest that he was rarely out of their sight throughout his stay. Any persisting reasonable doubts crumble when Anderson himself finds Maitland’s finger print on the cover of a book in a Cap City gift shop.
In short: by all the laws of modern forensics, Maitland is innocent beyond doubt. Oh, and guilty as well.
This knotty conundrum is brilliantly laid out. But how is King going to untie Maitland the killer from Maitland the innocent? The solution is first whispered by Anderson’s wife, Jeanette, a typical King partner: wise, long-suffering and almost impossibly well-read in just the right ways – here she drops apt allusions to Edgar Allen Poe and decodes obscure references to Agatha Christie. It is Poe’s short story “William Wilson” that sows the seeds: a man haunted by his doppelgänger, which ends in the most bizarre, if chilling murder.
The novel’s transition towards the supernatural begins soon after the early plot climaxes on the steps of the courtroom, before Maitland’s arraignment. Anderson surveys a mob baying for Maitland’s blood. The scene returns to haunt him and us, almost literally, in a series of dreams that disconcertingly are shared by others: a man (“The Outsider”) with straws for eyes seen by one of Maitland’s daughters and Peterson’s father, whose vision occurs as he tries in vain to hang himself.
“The Outsider” inspires his share of unnerving moments, involving mind control, strange rituals and unfettered evil. So why is his arrival a disappointment? In part it is a matter of consistency. King had been so diligent when distributing his material clues that the advent of his boogie man feels like a betrayal. King might point to Sherlock Holmes’ dictum: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Or to Jeanette, who slightly misquotes Shakespeare: “More things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”
The novel, however, shows no interest in such philosophical meditations when setting up its exacting premise. The introduction of fantastic elements feels less spooky than an admission of defeat – King’s version of blue elven swords or his own Brady Hartsfield’s unconvincing theatrics, which are actually cited towards the end.
My frustration is also a kind of backhanded praise. The Outsider is King’s best novel for a while. Brilliantly paced, it is full of unforgettable set pieces and possessed of a humane sensitivity for its well-drawn characters. The Outsider was a minor masterpiece-in-waiting. If only he had kept it real.