For most of my life, I have been a voracious reader — for a couple of decades, I doggedly maintained a book-a-week pace almost to the point of annoyance. When the twins came along, however, I had an unfortunate falling out with books. I’d dabble here and there, but I could never get anything going.
When I returned last September to the book-a-week pace, everything had changed. I no longer knew that much about the publishing world, and the people with whom I was most obsessed when I bailed six years ago — Eggers, Lethem, Franzen, Chabon, Foster Wallace, Anne Tyler — were no longer the most important voices in the publishing industry, but I had also found that they no longer held that much appeal. I guess I went through a “snooty” phase that lasted a good 20 years, but now? I don’t know if it’s age or the Trump era or the fact that reading is my only escape from this job (I rarely write about books, because you people don’t give a shit), but now I just want to read page-turners. Mystery novels, noirs, coming-of-age novels, YA, small-town character studies, etc. My younger self would probably scoff, but people like Ruth Ware and Fredrik Backman have become my favorite authors. “Literature” holds about as much appeal to me now as the second season of Westworld or Legion. I have no interest in working for it, or reading about characters wandering aimlessly through their lives in search for meaning (gah! this year’s Pulitzer winner, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less was so very … less). I just want to be entertained.
That brings me to Stephen King’s latest, The Outsider. I have not read a Stephen King novel in 20 goddamn years, not since consuming all his big horror novels — Pet Semetary, Christine, Children of the Corn, Misery, Dolores Claiborne, etc. I think the last one I read was probably The Eyes of the Dragon (and it’s probably still my favorite). I have lived in Maine for a decade, and I haven’t touched a Stephen King novel. I am pathetic.
I had also forgotten what a tremendously great storyteller King is, and The Outsider was a quick reminder of that. In a way, it was the perfect re-entry point for me, because it starts out more like a legal thriller than a typical Stephen King novel (or at least, typical to how I once knew him). It concerns an investigation into the raping, killing, and mutilation of an 11-year-old boy. The town’s popular and extremely well-liked Little League coach, Terry Maitland, is arrested for the crime. Detective Ralph Anderson has the goods on him, including fingerprints and several eyewitnesses who can put him at the scene of the crime. Anderson is so confident that Maitland is the killer that he makes a public arrest of him without bothering to question him first.
But, you know: It’s obviously not as cut-and-dry as that, because there’s also plenty of alibi evidence for Terry Maitland. It’s one of those cases where Maitland appears to have been in two different places at the same time. There’s got to be another explanation, and there is, of course. A very Stephen King explanation, but here’s the thing: The storytelling is so magnificent, and the characters are so well drawn that I didn’t at all mind that Stephen King was injecting his Stephen King-ness into this otherwise excellent murder mystery.
And you know what else? In some ways, King seems to be a better writer than he used to be. It’s more relaxed; he’s a better writer of women, and the descriptions of gore are not so belabored. The Outsider is like a Harlen Coben mystery set in a Richard Russo town with Stephen King flourishes. It’s so good that now I want to backtrack and read those Mr. Mercedes novels (a character of whom that series appears in The Outsider), because he’s clearly adept at writing gripping and great murder mysteries (but first, there are new books from Ware and Backman that I must attend to).
… and speaking of Harlan Coben (who is actually name-dropped in King’s novel, along with a couple of swipes at Trump), I have not actually read any of his novels yet, but I did watch the new Netflix series, Safe, a French-British television drama series created by Coben now airing on Netflix. It’s kind of the perfect long-weekend series. It’s a murder mystery set in a gated community in England. Michael C. Hall — with an English accent that takes some time to get accustomed to — stars as Dr. Tom Delaney, a widowed surgeon whose daughter and boyfriend go missing. He and Detective Sergeant Sophie Mason (Amanda Abbington) — who is also Delaney’s girlfriend — begin the investigation of the case, which seems to take them into a new — and often diverging — directions in every episode.
There are half a dozen red herrings, but even those come back around and play a part in the very satisfying — and surprisingly surprising — reveal. It’s a very conventional mystery thriller, but it’s well-suited to Netflix. The page-turning qualities of a good murder mystery adapt well to the binge-watching model, and it’s good to see Michael C. Hall in a role that doesn’t end up with him being a lumberjack. I wouldn’t call it “necessary” viewing, but that’s kind of the point. It’s the Netflix version of a good beach read.