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Underground Reading: The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

The Colorado KidThis is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week. You can follow along here. After a slight hiatus, we're back with #13 - Stephen King's The Colorado Kid.

This is going to be a very structured review - a bit like a middle school book report. Here's how it'll go:

  • What happens in The Colorado Kid
  • What I like about it
  • What I don't like about it
  • The greater significance 

There's a method to my madness (or, to be more accurate, a madness to the method), in that I've got a fairly complicated emotional relationship with it. Not that, like, this book once shot my dog, but that, between the author and publisher, there are a lot of big weighty "brands" here, and it is important to (try to) treat the text itself as a discrete entity.

So, here we go. What happens in The Colorado Kid?

Well, without being funny, not much. The Colorado Kid is a story within a story. A young reporter, Stephanie, fresh out of college, has the unenvious position of intern to a local paper on a tiny island off of Maine. It is now late in the summer and, much to her surprise, she's fallen in love with the town and the two elderly goofballs that run the paper.  

During the course of one day, Dave and Vince (the goofballs) test Stephanie on her powers of observation and deduction. Why don't they tip the waitress more? Why didn't the visitor from Boston trust them? Etc. Stephanie impresses them (she's clearly impressed them the whole summer), so they reward her with a real story - an unsolved mystery that took place on the island in 1980.

Even then, there's not much in the way of action. The titular character is a dead man - a body found by two teenagers on the beach one morning. The investigation reveals mystery after mystery. How did he die? Who is he? Why is he there? Where did he come from? How did he get there? It goes on and one, with a bit of procedural nonsense as well - the investigation is bungled by detectives and then salvaged by a hardworking forensic intern. With every answer comes more questions: the Colorado Kid is a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma sold as a mass market paperback.

What I like about The Colorado Kid is neatly summed up in King's own conclusion: this is an experiment, not in mystery-writing but in storytelling. Spoiler: there's no clean resolution to the mystery. In fact, there are some messy theories thrown around, but, generally speaking, the protagonists all decide that they really have no idea.

King's thought experiment is a story wrapped up in a mystery inside a story. He's created a story about a mystery about stories (or is that a story about storytellers telling a mystery?). The Colorado Kid is King's excuse (through his characters) to muse aloud (or a-print) about what makes a good mystery vs what makes a good story.

And, as can be expected from the best-selling author that wrote the world's most frequently cited book about writing, these musings are extremely interesting. Stories, he explained, need an answer. When "unsolved mysteries" are presented to readers, they're done so with an implied solution. True mysteries are uninteresting: there's no solution, so what is the reader to do?

In the case of this reader? Roll his eyes and sigh in an annoying exaggerated fashion.

King's experiment is just that: an experiment. I actually like the unsolved mystery element - and respect the fact that the story is about unsolved mysteries. But I can't get behind the fact that the story itself is kind of poopy. Stephanie, Dave and Vince are straight out of central casting. She's the fresh-faced intern with no life of her own - ready to throw away her big city dreams (and love life that is referenced in a single sentence) to stay in the middle of nowhere. (Interestingly, we although we know she's pretty because that's mentioned - well, a lot - the cover has absolutely nothing to do with this book.)

Dave and Vince speak in creaky witticisms, good ol' boys that can solve every problem with the strength of personality and a little Yankee derring-do. If it weren't for Stephanie's glowing lionisation, one wonders what they would do with themselves. Patronise one another, presumably. Or passing salesmen. The entire island is shrouded in a folksy charm, everything here is perfect and special - even the murders. Of course it may look and sound like the most remote and miserable location in the universe, but that's because you don't know it. Stephanie knows it - even the smell of rotting fish is beautiful to her because she understands

Perhaps that's the great reason that I don't like The Colorado Kid: the whole thing reeks of a certain sort of smugness. The book itself is a thought experiment generously given print. The characters are puppet-lecturers for the author's own conclusions... and a beautiful young woman who hangs on their every word.

If King is to be believed, even the minutae of the story is self-indulgent. I also picked up on the Starbucks mention and find his "defense" unconscionable. Either he's too embarrassed to admit he simply made a mistake or genuinely put an impossible detail into a story all about detail, as a nod to, well, himself. This is a book that examines a character's travel down to the minute, but then also throws in a cursory wave to an alternate universe? Not cool. [Unless, as noted above, he's implying a solution to the mystery. The Colorado Kid fell out of the Dark Tower universe. Isn't that lovely?]

Yet - and here's the tricky bit - I can only assume that The Colorado Kid was the biggest thing to happen to Hard Case Crime, and quite possibly the best. (Good lord, they somehow made a TV series out of it.) This is obviously anecdotal, but it certainly brought the series to my attention. Like many others, a new mystery imprint meant nothing to me - but a new King? That was stop-the-press news.

However, this wasn't just the first Hard Case Crime I read - it was almost the last. I suppose, thematically, there's a fit between The Colorado Kid and the other books we've read so far - it is, viewed generously, a deconstruction of mysteries and a revisitation (kind of) of noir tropes (if only to discard them). But, ironically, the other Hard Case Crime novels are united in their appreciation of storytelling. Even the most by-the-numbers of the mysteries so far (say, the Erle Stanley Gardner) is still focused on entertaining and engaging the reader. The Colorado Kid, despite being about storytelling, is a rubbish story. It talks at the reader and never invites them in. We don't want to be the wide-eyed intern; one of those is more than enough, thank you.

I suppose, above all, The Colorado Kid wound up introducing me to my favourite contemporary publisher. So even if I don't like the book itself, I'll always be grateful to it.

(Cover note: simply fantastic cover by Glen Orbit. But, as noted above, it has nothing to do with the book. Bless him, I'd have probably done the same thing. A cover with two old men cracking lobster doesn't have the same sort of market appeal.)