Book review: King tries to understand evil in ‘Outsider’

Stephen King’s new novel, “The Outsider” (Scribner) opens with witness interviews in a typewriter font, laying out the details of a grisly crime and setting the scene for a detective story.

And for the first hundred or so pages, that’s what readers get. Detective Ralph Anderson arrests the respected Little League coach of Flint City, Oklahoma, based on a mountain of evidence that he murdered — maybe even ate? — an 11-year-old boy in a town park. Detective Anderson has the full support of the up-for-re-election district attorney and seemingly enough DNA in the perp’s van (white and windowless, naturally), all over the crime scene and on the murder weapon.

But wait — this is Stephen King, not Raymond Chandler, and there are still 500 pages!

Our first clue that the case isn’t all it seems is the suspect himself. Coach Terry Maitland is incredulous at his arrest and speaks to the police and his attorney with the conviction of an innocent man. So the police do their work, hoping to quickly run down his alibi.

And that’s when this Stephen King novel really begins. It seems Mr. Maitland was indeed at a Tri-State Teachers of English conference in another city at the time of the murder. Fellow teachers confirm it, there are fingerprints and, yes, even video. In a nice little wink, the English teachers are listening to real-life mystery author Harlan Coben speaking at the conference when Maitland appears on the footage, asking, “Do you always know who did it when you sit down to write Mr. Coben, or is it sometimes a surprise even to you?”

Fast forward to the arraignment and the story kicks into another gear. The victim’s older brother guns down Terry Maitland on the courthouse steps and with his dying breath the coach again denies the crime and asks Detective Anderson how he’s going to clear his conscience.

Enter Holly Gibney. Yes, that Holly Gibney — the cinema-loving, somewhere-on-the-spectrum, detective-in-training from King’s recent Bill Hodges Trilogy. She gets called in to check out a lead in Dayton, Ohio, and the stage is set for the rest of the novel — a clash between the Skeptics and the Believers. Holly carries the torch for the latter group, having gained some perspective on the matter thanks to the horrific crimes in that aforementioned trilogy.

To reveal much more of the plot wouldn’t be fair. Let’s just say that Holly’s arrival marks the real heart of the book. You can almost hear King — through her — addressing critics who dismiss the Evil Incarnate that permeates his novels.

More than many King novels, this one tries hard for understanding. You’ll probably see it in a few years as a five-part miniseries, but do yourself a favor and read it.