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What Stephen King gets right — and wrong — in ‘The Outsider’

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Reading a Stephen King novel is like climbing behind the wheel of a classic, unrepentantly American-made car. One glance at the furry dice hanging from the mirror tells you that you’re in for a terrific, pacey read with the kind of character development that has kept King firmly at the top of our country’s greatest writers for decades. He knows how to throttle the pleasing purr of a fine-tuned story into a shocking, stomach-clenching thrill ride. Every downshift is artfully timed so you don’t realize you’re heading into another tight corner.

His scene transitions are as smooth as Corinthian leather.

In short, King is arguably as much an American icon as the ’68 Fastback or a classic red-and-white Plymouth Fury. All of these glories are on full display in his latest mystery-horror hybrid, “The Outsider.” The twists and turns make for a fantastic read, but there is also the underlying fugue of displacement. Readers should take warning: The characters in the mirror are younger than they appear.

Though all but one of the narrators is decades away from buying a Jitterbug phone, no one really texts or seems to know about the camera feature on their phone (or that photos are geo-targeted and time-stamped). A woman in her early 40s wonders whether John Lennon, who was murdered 38 years ago, was still alive when she started living with her husband. A man who’s within kissing range of 50 fondly recalls “a rhyme from his raucous teenage years: Shave and a haircut . . . you bet! Sung by the whorehouse . . . quartet!” when surely a “Bohemian Rhapsody” reference would’ve been more relevant.

Does this time warp matter?

It’s Stephen King. Of course it doesn’t matter.

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As with most of King’s work, “The Outsider” is at its heart an exploration of good and evil; except this time, skepticism blurs the lines between the two. Terry Maitland is by all accounts a solid family man, a beloved Little League coach, and, quite suddenly, the main suspect in the horrific mutilation and murder of a young boy. The physical evidence and eyewitness testimony against him are incontrovertible, though completely at odds with his reputation as a husband and father who for years has been a pillar of his insular Flint City, Okla., community.

Detective Ralph Anderson is ready to send Maitland to death row for his unspeakable crimes. It’s only after he interrogates the suspect that he realizes his once-airtight case has sprung some holes. Ralph is the kind of cop we all hope is out there — he wants to arrest the right suspect, not just a suspect. When the evidence changes, when the stories don’t hold up, he doesn’t make excuses. He questions his concept of the truth.

That Ralph trusts all of his misgivings with his wife, Jeannie, adds a nice layer to the narrative. King has always excelled at exploring the complexities of marriage. Choosing to give Jeannie such a pivotal role is almost as rewarding as the denouement. She is not simply an anodyne set of feminine features who serves as a box to check more than a character, nor does she always agree with her husband.

Here’s Jeannie after Ralph’s sleepless night: “As his wife, she couldn’t ask the questions that this prompted: If you had such doubts, why in God’s name did you act the way you did? And why so fast? Yet, she had encouraged him, and so maybe she owned a little of his current trouble.”

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What follows is Jeannie helping Ralph talk through the finer points of the investigation. Clearly, she has been his rock from the beginning, and there’s a reason for that. Ralph really listens to what Jeannie has to say. Even when he doesn’t agree with her, he respects her opinion. In fact, all of the good guys in this novel share this one trait in common: They respect the women in their lives. This sentiment pays off. It’s Jeannie who first intuits the truth lying at the center of this seemingly unsolvable mystery, and her questions eventually put Ralph in front of the one woman who can help him catch a child killer: Holly Gibney.

Holly’s entrance into the narrative is where the story takes off. Of all the characters, she’s the one who makes the pages turn faster. It was the same in “Mr. Mercedes,” which also saw her as a late entry, and the subsequent novels in the Bill Hodges trilogy. Here, we see Holly fully realized as a woman driven to stop the forces of evil. To give more away would spoil the story, but lovers of the previous books should know that Holly stands fierce on her own, even without her beloved Bill.

It should be restated that any quibbles about dated references are small when compared with the overall reward of reading a gripping, good story. No book is perfect, but Stephen King is reliably closer than most. He has always excelled at writing about real people tested by unreal situations, whether it’s told in the unbroken narrative of Dolores Claiborne or via the mental lockboxes of Doctor Sleep. With “The Outsider,” if you can accept that a contemporary man in his late 40s recalls quoting “Our Gang” with his kid brother instead of the Fonz or even Pee-wee Herman, you’re in for one hell of a ride.

Karin Slaughter is a crime writer whose books include the Will Trent and Grant County series. Her next book, “Pieces of Her,” comes out in August.

By Stephen King

Scribner. 576 pp. $30.

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