(The Colorado Kid)
It’s funny how we all know the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” but still do a lot of that anyway.
Stephen King likes to write the occasional crime novel. Most of the time, crime novels aren’t my thing, so I tend to avoid them — at least until I run out of other things to read, then I’ll check them out. Of course, that typically ends up being a mistake when it comes to King, I almost always end up liking them anyway. And they often aren’t what they appear to be at first glance.
The Colorado Kid is one of the rare fiction books by King that I actually had never read before this journey through his bibliography. It’s packaged as a crime novel (literally published by Hard Case Crime). Based on the title, I would have assumed that it was either a mob thing or a Western type thing. The cover picture had me leaning more toward the mob possibility.
Well, it’s neither of those. I’m not even sure that it can really be classed as a crime novel. And of course, it ended up being super absorbing, even though the story is basically two old newspapermen recounting a story that’s not a story — and quite possibly not even a crime — to a young newspaperwoman. It probably shouldn’t even be interesting. But it is.
Supposedly, King based this story on an article (now lost) that he saw in a local paper, about a woman who was seen walking with a bright red purse who wound up mysteriously dead. I don’t have any reason to believe this article never existed or that King lied about his memory of his own inspiration. He has a history of being quite forthcoming, and there’s just no reason to believe this specific story is any different. But if you’ve heard of the mystery of the Somerton Man in South Australia, you can’t help but notice the similarities between that and this. Again, I’m not discounting King’s own account of his inspiration for his story. And honestly, a person showing up dead in a place where he had no obvious business being for no real reason that anyone can see is probably not an isolated incident — I imagine it’s happened plenty of times that just didn’t blow up into a story/mystery. But it seems unlikely that King hadn’t heard about the Somerton Man and incorporated parts of that story at least unconsciously. There are just too many similarities. Which is fine — a story about a famous unsolved mystery is not at all surprising.
The premise is simple enough, anyway. Two teens discover a dead body on the beach. No one knows the man, he’s not from around there. It seems like it could have been a suspicious death. He has a Russian coin in his pocket (in a lot of stories, particularly from writers who remember the Cold War, “Russian” is indicative of “terrorists”, “spies” or both. Russians as an enemy were largely replaced by Middle Easterners post 9-11, but I suspect that with current events as they are, evil Russians are about to regain villain status in fiction, so this detail seems relevant to right now, despite the publication date.) He also doesn’t belong there — some digging reveals that he left his wife, child, and job in another state without warning or a word to anyone and that this action was quite out of character.
However, examination of the body doesn’t exactly scream “murder!” or “conspiracy!” The man died by choking on some meat. He also had a stroke — this may have been caused by the choking, or may have precipitated the choking. Either way, it’s unlikely (though not entirely impossible) that someone intended to murder him that way.
This story is presented as a story with too many questions, not enough answers, and no through-line. Why did the man wind up several states from home? No idea. How did he get there? We’ve got some educated guesses, but that’s all. Was he actually murdered, or was his death truly accidental? Well, we know how it looks, but that’s really all. Was he planning to go home? We just don’t know. It’s an interesting mystery, but not for feature newsreaders — there are no real solutions here. Except that the young woman listening to and asking questions about this story is able to confirm for herself that she’s both the type of person who belongs in this business (someone who is driven to ask questions and get answers) and that she belongs in this place (as is typical with many of King’s Maine locations, it’s both a place that’s open to visitors and also skeptical of people From Away, which this character is. But for whatever reason, this particular character is integrating in a way that makes it seem as if she belongs there — she’s not going to remain someone From Away.) So perhaps this is a story more about the people who view it than about the person it’s about.
Which returns me to my original thoughts. I expected, based mostly on the cover, a more crimey novel, one that I wouldn’t be that interested in compared to others by this author. What I got was… something else. And I wonder if that says more about me than about the author or the story.