It’s a great time to be a Stephen King fan.

OK, last summer’s screen adaptation of “The Dark Tower” starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey was a dud, perhaps big enough to sink any chances of further cinematic tales of the gunslinger Roland of Gilead. Come fall, though, the well-constructed movie version of “IT” more than made up for the earlier miscalculation, delivering exactly the kinds of small-town terrors that King’s audience craves.

Netflix versions of “Gerald’s Game” and “1922” didn’t seem to click for critics or viewers, but “Stranger Things,” created by the Duffer brothers and paying homage to the kinds of books King wrote in the ’80s, became a critical and popular sensation. Based on one 30-second trailer, Hulu’s forthcoming “Castle Rock” series looks similarly intriguing.

Seeming to be in good health and spirits, King has also knuckled down to do what he does best – produce gripping novels and short stories of terror and suspense. Written with his son Owen, last fall’s “Sleeping Beauties” was a solid supernatural thriller, even if its “town under siege” tropes were a little over-familiar. (King also collaborated with Richard Chizmar on the novella “Gwendy’s Button Box.”) This summer King is back again, flying solo with a big crime novel tangentially related to the series begun in 2014’s excellent “Mr. Mercedes.”

Stephen King Photo by Shane Leonard

Set in fictional Flint City, Oklahoma, “The Outsider” starts with a terrible mistake by a good man. After an 11-year-old boy is discovered murdered and mutilated in a town park, Detective Ralph Anderson decides to arrest the suspect in perhaps the most public way possible. Anderson has no doubt that beloved Little League coach Terry Maitland is the culprit, and his sense of disgust and moral outrage causes him to cuff Maitland at the baseball park, in the middle of a game, in front of shocked friends and family members.

Detective Anderson feels he has an airtight case against Maitland. Reliable eyewitnesses are ready to attest they saw the coach with the boy or in a car covered with damning fingerprints. Maitland swears he has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney believe the DNA evidence they are waiting for will eventually bear out their accusation.

On his way to jail, Maitland calls out Anderson on the “bad behavior” of his extraordinarily public arrest.

King writes, “There was no reason for Ralph to feel guilty at the reproach of a man who had raped and murdered a child, but for a moment he still did. Then he thought of the crime scene pictures, photos so ugly you almost wished you were blind.”

At nearly 600 pages, “The Outsider” isn’t exactly a streamlined thriller. Yet, it doesn’t feel bloated or self-indulgent. Anderson, Maitland and the supporting cast are so deftly drawn, their predicaments so fraught with menace, that the momentum of the narrative builds steadily and keeps the pages turning.

In the background is the Outsider, a stranger in town, orchestrating tragedies seemingly on a whim. King cleverly keeps him at a distance for most of the book, letting his menace build by increments. By the time Anderson’s search for the truth leads to an abandoned mine in the desert, readers are unlikely to be able to put “The Outsider” aside for even a moment.

Partway through, “The Outsider” takes a beautifully choreographed, unexpected turn that changes everything.

Yet for all its gracefulness, the plot twist may disappoint some readers. Following the pivot, “The Outsider” shifts from the realistic police procedural to supernatural horror novel. King delights in blending genres, but in this case, it’s better when he sticks to just one.

Ultimately, “The Outsider” is about belief, the conscious choice to acknowledge that the universe is a stranger place than most people think it is. Even after his wife is threatened by a mysterious stranger with abilities that seem like magic, it is Ralph Anderson who struggles most heavily with that uncertainty: “He could not believe in any explanation that transgressed the rules of the natural world, not just as a police detective but as a man. A real person had killed Frank Peterson, not a spook from a comic book.”

The Outsider is a wily opponent, who can survive because few are able to recognize him for what he is. They fail to protect themselves from his very real malice and destructiveness.

King appears to be on a hot streak, that he extends with “The Outsider.” Big, complex and inventive, it’s a well-honed continuation of his interest in the intersection of crime and horror fiction, demonstrating his consummate skill with both.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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