THE OUTSIDER, by Stephen King. Scribner, 561 pp., $30.
When Stephen King writes a procedural, it doesn’t take him long to establish the lay of the land. His new novel, “The Outsider,” goes from zero to 60 in three seconds, and you can almost hear the sound of tires screeching as King sets up his story’s basic premise: You can’t be in two places at once, and yet it looks as if the suspect in a gruesome homicide did just that.
The book starts with detective Ralph Anderson and his team putting handcuffs on Little League coach Terry Maitland in the middle of a big game in their hometown of Flint City, Oklahoma. Ralph has several trustworthy witnesses linking Terry to the rape and killing of a local 11-year-old boy. Physical evidence also starts piling up. For the detective, himself the father of a young son, that’s reason enough to rush the arrest.
Except that other, equally reliable witnesses swear that Terry was in another city altogether at the time of the events, attending a lecture by thriller writer Harlan Coben (a nice tip of the hat to a comrade on the bestseller lists). So how to explain that fingerprints matching Terry’s could be found in both locations?
At this point, King is in complete control. Each chapter ends in a pulp-fiction cliffhanger, and turning the pages becomes downright compulsive.
Oh, did I say that “The Outsider” is a procedural? Well, only kind of. The first third of the novel follows that genre’s codes, complete with basic police work such as DNA collection and witness interviews — where King, once more, shows off his knack for endowing characters you will never see again with instantly memorable quirks and personalities.
But the cops keep running into a nagging problem: ubiquity is physically impossible. And as Sherlock Holmes once said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The line is famous among crime-fiction writers and readers, and King himself brings it up when the ad hoc team trying to figure out what’s going on realizes that the only explanation left is as inconceivable as the ones that have been ruled out.
We’re not even halfway through “The Outsider” when one of Ralph’s colleagues, Lt. Yune Sablo, informs him that things are becoming weird. Really? Weirder than a guy being in two places at once? Yes. And there is more to come — though for a long, long time Ralph will resist the supernatural truth. (Clearly, Ralph has never heard of King’s “It,” of which this book is almost a remake.)
Fortunately, Yune is faster than Ralph to accept that “there is something here that’s way out of our experience.” Even more on the ball is the eccentric investigator brought in to help with the case. That would be one Holly Gibney, who was introduced in King’s 2014 novel “Mr. Mercedes” and figured in the subsequent two books of his Bill Hodges trilogy. The dogged Holly, who appears to be somewhere on the spectrum, has experience with spooky phenomena, making her the right person to put Ralph and company on the right path.
And yet Holly’s arrival signals the book’s downturn in terms of plot. Up to that point, King has skillfully explored the devastation caused by a false accusation and a flawed justice system — the local D.A. always has optics in mind — and doing it at a zippy, hard-boiled pace. But then “The Outsider” gets entangled in all-too-familiar boogeyman weeds and slows down to a crawl that culminates in a confrontation so anticlimactic as to be, dare I say, laughable. “What Ralph saw then would haunt his dreams for years to come,” we are told. You’d be lucky to remember that ending a day later.