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The Outsider by Stephen KingUK edition3.5 stars

Buy from IndieBoundStephen King isn’t just a writer, he’s an American institution and industry. And he’s gotten that way over nearly 50 years of creating a regular and reliable stream of stories that filter American anxieties through the sieve of popular horror.

I mention “reliable” because King has a pretty sharply defined storytelling comfort zone that, while he has occasionally strayed out of it with varying degrees of success, he succeeds most often when he gives his readers precisely what they want and expect. The Outsider is trademark Stephen King: a small town setting in which the lives of fairly privileged, upper-middle-class Americans who would rarely if ever experience horror and violent crime in their day-to-day, are utterly upended and, for some of them, destroyed by an encounter with the very essence of evil. Not just your everyday doppelgänger story, The Outsider examines the notion that evil can wear any face it chooses.

Here, the setting is the fictitious Flint City, Oklahoma. A young child has been mutilated and murdered in the most horrible way imaginable, and detective Ralph Anderson, following the evidence, very publicly arrests Terry Maitland, a popular Little League baseball coach considered such a pillar of the community that he was voted Flint City’s Man of the Year for 2015. Anderson has what seems to be an airtight collection of evidence. Not only are Maitland’s fingerprints all over the crime scene as well as vehicles tied to the crime, but a series of credible eyewitnesses report encountering Maitland both before and after the murder took place. And the eyewitnesses who saw him afterwards report Maitland to be amiable, chatty, and not the least bit concerned that people are seeing him covered in blood and offering feeble excuses for the fact.

But Maitland doggedly insists on his innocence, and his aggressive attorney and family friend Howie Gold is turning up his own equally powerful evidence proving Maitland was miles away at the time, attending a literary conference. Not only are there traveling companions as well as fingerprint evidence placing Maitland at the conference hotel, but there is even local news video footage, with audio, of Maitland standing and speaking during a Q&A session. Can it be possible for a man to be in two places at once?

Detective Anderson’s resolve is shaking, and when things go from bad to worse before Maitland’s arraignment even takes place, he quickly becomes obsessed with learning the truth, and, if Maitland was truly innocent, bringing the guilty party to justice and making whatever amends he can for a grave moral and professional failure. It’s just that Anderson has little idea just what kind of guilty party he’s about to encounter. No one is quite prepared for what they’re about to face, except perhaps for Holly Gibney, a private investigator whom regular King readers will know from the Bill Hodges trilogy, beginning with Mr. Mercedes. (And while you don’t have to have read that trilogy in order to enjoy this novel, I should mention that if you haven’t, The Outsider drops heavy spoilers throughout.)

Holly is one of King’s most appealing characters. She’s a complete introvert, comfortable with habits, someone you’d assume wholly unsuited to the job of investigator where one is often called to deep dive into the lives of others. But Holly’s personality in fact gives her extraordinary empathy and a willingness to pursue the truth through an unwavering commitment to honesty. Characterization is King’s strong suit, and always has been. Even when his plots have faltered, reading his books gives you the feeling you have been in the company of real people who breathe. Holly, Ralph Anderson, and the other characters who join them on their journey to ferret out the truth of “the outsider” — such as the Latino cop Yune Sablo, and a lovably cantankerous old Southern lady actually named Lovie Bolton — become players who fill the story with life and warmth.

If you’ve read a lot of King, the way the plot resolves won’t surprise most of you, and the resolution might even seem to unfold a bit too easily, if not anticlimactically. But, as I said: “reliable” is Stephen King’s middle name. And I think most of you will find The Outsider delivers exactly the suspense and thrills you’re hoping for on a chilly October evening.