On a July day, Terry Maitland, one of the most popular men in Flint City, Okla. — high school English teacher, Little League coach, husband and father, recently named the town's man of the year — attends a teachers convention in a city over an hour's drive away with a group of his colleagues, who are with him all day. He even appears on video of a Q&A session with author Harlan Coben.
On that same July day, witnesses in Flint City who know Terry see him approach 11-year-old Frank Peterson, whose bike has a broken chain, and drive away with the boy in a van. A few hours later, other witnesses see Terry in Flint City in bloody clothes. Frank Peterson is found murdered, sexually assaulted and horribly mutilated — and all the forensic evidence points to Maitland.
How could Terry be in two places at once? And how could a man so beloved and respected, a man the whole community has trusted with their children, commit such an unthinkable crime?
It can't be true. It must be true.
That's the situation Stephen King sets up with blazing intensity in the first chapter of his new novel, The Outsider.
King turned 70 last year, but he shows no signs of retiring. Since 1974, he has published more than 50 novels and 200 short stories, which have become sources for dozens of movies and TV series. Just last year he published the novel Sleeping Beauties, a collaboration with his son Owen King, and Gwendy's Button Box, a collaboration with Richard Chizmar; The Dark Tower and It were released in theaters; and Netflix produced two movies based on his fiction, 1922 and Gerald's Game. This year, in addition to The Outsider, Hulu will begin streaming the new series Castle Rock in July, and King will have a novella, Elevation, in October.
And in his spare time, King (who is a fierce political commentator on Twitter) is floating the idea of running for governor of Maine.
Just kidding; that last one was an April Fools' joke. (And sorry I said "floating.") But the rest is real. The Outsider is proof King isn't losing his touch: It's a first-rate example of his signature technique of combining solidly realistic writing and believable characters with disturbingly creepy horror.
If you enjoyed King's recent crime fiction trilogy about retired police detective Bill Hodges, Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers and End of Watch, you'll see familiar elements in The Outsider. Besides an initial inexplicable crime, this book has a similar main character. Ralph Anderson is still on the job as a detective for Flint City's police force, and he is one of the people who makes the decision to arrest Terry in the middle of a Little League game, in front of a crowd of spectators that includes his wife, Marcy, and their two young daughters.
It's a decision Ralph will come to regret, but it's driven in part by raw emotion — his own son is one of the boys Terry has coached in Little League, and the condition of Frank Peterson's body leaves Ralph shaken to his core.
The boy's murder will prove to be just the first in a cascade of deaths in Flint City. Ralph and his friend and fellow detective, Yunel Sablo, will enter an uneasy alliance with Terry's lawyer and best friend, Howie Gold, and Gold's investigator, Alec Pelley, to pursue the case.
Some of that pursuit takes the form of a police procedural as the detectives analyze physical evidence and witness accounts. But that evidence and other events begin to indicate the case is even stranger, and larger, than they thought. The van found with blood and fingerprints from Terry and Frank may also be related to a similar crime in Ohio, and that connection will point them toward the tiny Texas town of Marysville.
In Flint City, Marcy Maitland will try to comfort her daughter Grace when the child says she saw someone outside her second-story window. "I don't care," Grace says. "I saw him. His hair was short and black and standing up. His face was lumpy, like Play-Doh. He had straws for eyes."
And Ralph's no-nonsense wife, Jeannie, will have an impossible visitor, too, a man who may or may not be a dream, who has the words CAN'T and MUST tattooed on his fingers. (It can't be true. It must be true.)
King also has Jeannie voice several allusions to Edgar Allan Poe's classic story of an evil double, William Wilson: "I took a class in college called American Gothic, and we read a lot of Poe's stories, including that one. The professor said people had the mistaken idea that Poe wrote fantastic stories about the supernatural, when in fact he wrote realistic stories about abnormal psychology." Sound like anyone we know?
Ralph, Yunel, Howie and Alec will join forces with another kind of outsider as they try to break the case. They'll move from fingerprints and DNA to looking for clues in a 1980s movie called Rosita Luchadora e Amigos Conocen El Cuco, or Mexican Wrestling Women Meet the Monster. And in Texas, they'll chase the case right down the Marysville Hole, a cave system in which people have vanished.
Along the way, King occasionally cracks the tension with sardonic humor, as when a computer analyst tells Ralph what he found on Terry's computers: "There's plenty, but all stuff you'd expect — shopping sites like Amazon, news blogs like Huffington Post, half a dozen sports sites. He keeps track of the Major League standings, and he appears to be a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays. That alone suggests there's something wrong with his head."
But most of the time, The Outsider is a horrifying ride that challenges its characters not to succumb to their own darkness. As one of them muses, when it can't be true but it must be true, "A person did what a person could, whether it was setting up gravestones or trying to convince twenty-first-century men and women that there were monsters in the world, and their greatest advantage was the unwillingness of rational people to believe."
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.