An under-remarked facet of Stephen King’s genius is his eye. Like John Updike or Joseph Conrad, he sees more than we do, then carefully sets down what he sees, until a bright yellow bra strap or red lips moving in a black goatee become sharp, silvery hooks. Try and free yourself.
The Outsider, in which that eye sees quite a bit, is at least two novels, imperfectly grafted. The first–and best–centers on a Little League baseball coach arrested for a terrible violation: the rape and murder of an 11-year-old boy. The case against him (built for us partly through police interviews) is ironclad. But so is his alibi.
This section, which makes up the first third or so, is a heavily-researched police procedural with tinges of the uncanny. The tension, as mistakes are made and consequences worsen, is hard to bear. It builds to a fever pitch in one of the best depictions of a mob ever put to paper. The aftermath is, simply, awful.
Probably inevitably, those tinges of the uncanny soon soak through everything, and the story turns into one King has told before: that of a small group of people determined to bring down a monster. There is, unsurprisingly, a human whose moral weaknesses cause him to be susceptible to evil. There is also a lot of talking. Too much talking. And the villain is best when he’s off-page; on-page, he’s all too easy for the reader to dismiss.
The pace quickens in Marysville, Texas, a fictional town that feels real enough, thanks to King’s talents. Soon the world is set to right – well, as right as it can be. There have been sacrifices, but a sentimental ending (not atypically for King) means they are forgotten soon enough. Same with the monster. Those things are outside. The first third, though…that gets under your skin. It may never come out.