Honestly, what can I say? Stephen King has been writing bestsellers for six decades now. He may have made his name as a horror writer, but there seems to be no genre he can’t make his own; The Dark Tower series redefined epic fantasy, 11/22/63 is still one of the most meticulous takes on time travel I’ve ever seen, and the recent Mr. Mercedes trilogy showed his totally unsurprising sure hand at detective fiction. This is a man whose dust jacket bio only lists his most recent hit novels. And now comes his latest, Holly, which seamlessly blends the mystery format of the Mr. Mercedes books with some of the most disturbing horror scenes he’s written since The Outsider in 2018.
Yeah, it’s great.
What did you expect?
Anyway, the novel centers on Holly Gibney, the one-time sidekick of the main detective from the Mr. Mercedes trilogy (of which this is a pseudo-sequel), Bill Hodges. She now runs her own PI agency, which receives a desperate call from a mother whose daughter has gone missing—right after Holly attends her own mother’s funeral. Naturally, her pursuit of the case quickly becomes interwoven with her own mixed feelings about the late Charlotte Gibney’s legacy… which turns out to include a millionaire inheritance Holly believed was gone.
This plot point lingers in the background for most of the novel, though, as the action switches between Holly’s investigation, the story of the perpetrators she’s chasing, and fellow recurring character Barbara Robinson’s own mostly unrelated plotline. These separate threads are, for the most part, balanced pretty well, though the Barbara-centric segments, which mostly focus on her development as a poet, at times feel like an excuse for King to insert his trademark in-story writer representation.
Okay, for the purposes of this review, I’m going to get into mild spoiler territory now, so scroll away if you’re a King fanatic who wants to go in fresh (in which case, why are you reading a review in the first place?). The kidnappers that Holly is tracking—who are responsible for several other abductions, as it rapidly becomes clear—are two octogenarian college professors who subject their victims to sadistic torture before dismembering and eating them. If that feels like more than a mild spoiler, believe me, it’s not; the book follows their killing spree from the beginning, jumping around in time before finally connecting all three plotlines in very satisfying fashion.
Some might argue that nonlinear structure isn’t strictly necessary, as the book would work perfectly well as a straightforward mystery. King, however, especially at this stage of his career, is not content with simply crafting a story that works well. His continued success is surely due at least partly to his consistent willingness to experiment. The Harrises’ homicidal antics are the best part of the book, made all the more horrifying for their lack of supernatural powers—probably King’s most ingenious touch here. They’re just a deranged elderly couple who still somehow manage to pose a significant threat… perhaps precisely because no one suspects them.These antagonists are strangely perfect complements for Holly, who has lasted this long mainly due to how down-to-earth she feels. Most of King’s protagonists are ordinary folks, but Holly feels even more like someone you could really meet. Her unique mixture of perceptiveness, self-awareness, and empathy make her, in my opinion, more sympathetic than an old veteran like Bill Hodges or a career detective like Ralph Anderson (hero of The Outsider). She seems fundamentally improbable as a detective, just like her quarry here, giving the whole outrageous story a strange kind of verisimilitude.
That verisimilitude extends to the impeccable details throughout, including some very cutting commentaries on race and the Black Lives Matter protests that show King has not fallen behind the times. Less incisive are the many heavy-handed references to Covid (which Holly’s mother dies of and Holly herself is very careful around), which feel rather tacked-on and forced. The Harrises’ disdain for the ‘fake flu’ is a rather unnecessary bit of negative characterization, considering they’ve been established as virulent racists and, well, cannibals.
If I had to point out another weak point, it’d be the rather flabby midsection, when it seems like the disparate plot strands will never intersect, and Holly’s investigation gets bogged down in some leads that don’t pan out. But that certainly didn’t stop me from devouring the book in much less time than I’d usually take to read a 400-plus page novel (and not just because I had to write this review!). Reading a King book these days really is just sitting back and watching a master at work, so completely confident in his ability to turn out a compulsive page-turner that he’s not afraid to take a few risks. The unlikely villains, unorthodox heroine, and counterintuitive structure all make for a more enjoyable read overall… and remind us why King remains King. Long may he reign.