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BOOK REVIEW

The case of the famous author and the curious misstep

The Colorado Kid, By Stephen King, Hard Case Crime, 184 pp., $5.99

A fairly obscure but interesting year-old publishing outfit called Hard Case Crime is putting out Stephen King's new novel, which represents a departure both for the writer and publisher. Hard Case normally generates classic pulp-fiction reprints or tough contemporary crime fiction (all in paperback), while the massively popular King (250 million books, and counting, sold worldwide) customarily writes horror novels.

His new ''The Colorado Kid," however, is a mystery book, but exceptionally soft-boiled. Hard Case is happy anyway; who wouldn't want Stephen King on their writers' roster?

''The Colorado Kid" is a curious little production -- part talky drama, part Down East travelogue replete with linguistics lessons, and, if you can believe it, part philosophical inquiry, however unsophisticated.

In essence, it's two old-timey newspaper men, the entire staff of The Weekly Islander, regaling their pretty summer intern with a long yarn about a dead guy discovered some years back near the public beach. The paper covered the story, and both men have clung to its unsolved mysteries with a fascination that should be contagious; they certainly think it is.

Most of the action, if you can call it that, takes place in the cozy offices of the Mooselook Island paper. Here, with ''gorgeous" seascapes in the painterly background, gnarly old Vince, the paper's founder back in 1948, and his longtime associate, younger senior citizen Dave, rattle on (and on) about the dead stranger found with a piece of beef caught in his throat and a chevronetz, a Russian coin, stuck in his pocket.

The writing is smooth, though without distinction, and the narrative effects and character affectations are as phony as a wooden chevronetz. The genial old ''caw-jahs" slap their knees in mentor merriment as budding journalist Stephanie poses increasingly smart questions about events surrounding the story they're telling. The men prod her on: ''Ask yourself this, youngster," and not only do they pepper their often stilted speech with ''ayuhs," but King offers a didactic paragraph examining the nuances of the word. (By the way, does anyone really say ''vicey-versa," another dash of dialect in the mix?)

It's hard to imagine crime-fiction devotees cottoning to this narratively spineless, sentimental yarn. In the end, with its canned laughter, virtuous and good-natured old gents, and pastel-colored language, it feels like nothing quite so much as a 1950s sitcom.

There are timeouts from the slowly unfolding duologue for draughts of Coke and squash muffins, and, more portentously, for leading questions directed to the enchanted intern, such as ''Do things have a beginning, a middle, and end in real life?"

You could call ''The Colorado Kid" a meta-novel, a story within a story contemplating the meaning of mystery narratives and our attraction to them. And you could do so even without King's superfluous, defensive afterword. His ideas, unoriginal but ingenuous, address Big Questions, the deeper mysteries of life itself. There is something ultimately sad, a kind of admission of defeat, in these final few pages of the book -- and it comes as little surprise to learn in a note from the publisher that King had essentially come out of writing retirement to do this novel for Hard Case.

If only he could have successfully translated his heartfelt notions in the afterword into lively and persuasive fiction. Two mysteries remain: Would this anomaly of a book have been published at all without the King name on the spine, and will his royal cachet convert even this into a bestseller?

John Koch can be reached at jlivekoch@comcast.net.

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