October 8, 2020Books
Review: The Holdout, by Graham Moore
Legal Thriller (Fiction)
We join The Holdout in the present day, and meet Maya, a defense attorney. In short order we learn that Maya was part of an infamous jury that, ten years previously, acquitted a 25 year old Black teacher named Bobby Nock in the disappearance of his 15 year old white student, Jessica Silver. Afterwards, several of the jurors recanted their verdict, and the case has been followed and examined by both professional and amateur detectives ever since. Now the jurors are being gathered for a ten year retrospective of the trial, to be filmed for a tv adaptation of a true crime podcast. When one of them is found dead in Maya's hotel room, she is the prime suspect. As Maya tries to clear her name, the story alternates between the present day and the events of a decade ago.
When I first started this blog, my plan was to only recommend slam dunk five star entertainment. In the case of The Holdout, I'm making an exception and sharing a four star experience. Overall I think this was a cracking good read, but have some mixed feelings about the denouement and I want to be up front about that (in a spoiler free way!)
As a page turner, I'd call this an unqualified success. I tore through this novel, and it kept me guessing throughout. The story hooks you early in Chapter One, after Maya is reunited with one of her fellow jurors, Rick.
"Ten years ago, before she was a lawyer, before she had ever seen the inside of a courtroom - Maya had answered a summons for jury duty. She'd checked a box and put a prepaid envelope in the mail. And then she'd spent five months of trial and deliberation with Rick and the others, sequestered from the outside world. None of them had been prepared for the controversy that greeted their verdict. Only after they'd emerged from their sequester did Maya learn that 84 percent of Americans believed Bobby Nock had murdered Jessica Silver. Which meant that 84% of Americans believed Maya and Rick had let a child-killer go free."
The plot is further complicated when we learn that at least one juror blamed Maya for convincing them all to vote "Not Guilty", and said so publicly. Moore creates an irresistible set up here - layering mystery upon mystery upon mystery.
The structure Moore uses to unfold these stories is also very effective. Each chapter alternates between the present day, always from Maya's perspective, to ten years ago, with each chapter told from the point of view of one of the other jurors. There are secrets in the past and in the present, which are disclosed piece by piece as the book progresses. The pacing is excellent - Moore keeps things moving and major revelations show up at regular intervals. In re-reading I can see some of the clues he planted early on, but the first time around they weren't obviously portentous. I always appreciate a mystery writer who gives me the tools for the solution, but doesn't beat me over the head with them. Moore's writing is clear and crisp, and despite the time jumping I never felt lost or confused. He's spinning a lot of plates here and none of them drop.
Moore is obviously an Agatha Christie fan (one of the jurors is reading a stack of her novels during the trial). The architecture of this story shares a lot of the same building blocks as her classic books. For example, since all the jurors are gathered together in the same place for the first time in years, we don't know if the present murder has been driven by the trial, the years since, or something more current. It's reminiscent (to me) of one of my favorite Christie stories, Evil Under the Sun*.
Christie's books were always tightly plotted and so is Moore's, and I appreciate how this book is an original but with hints of an homage to the master.
Moore also tackles some societal issues - race, wealth, true-crime journalism and the criminal justice system. I can't say he goes particularly deep on any of these topics, but they do add another layer of complexity to the story, and definitely had me reflecting on more than just the "whodunit" aspect of the book.
While I enjoy John Grisham novels, The Holdout is several cuts above even the best of Grisham's work. But I'd say that both authors go light on character development. Maya is a fine protagonist - she's smart, she can be funny, you can see that she's really good at her job and, as an amateur investigator, she does pretty good work. But although we spend the most time with her, I can't say I know a whole lot beyond the surface. That's not a deal breaker for a book like this, but would have helped bump this up to a five star read for me. As for the rest of the characters, none of the jurors (with the exception of one or two) really stand out as much more than devices to help unwind the mystery or move the plot forward. I never really get the hang of who's who which, considering they are all suspects in the present day murder, is a bit of a problem. There are a few breakthroughs in the case that are made purely by luck, and it seems highly unlikely that a murder suspect would be able to be as involved in interviewing witnesses as Maya is.
Still, most of my ambivalence comes from the resolutions to the mysteries themselves. As anyone who ever watched Lost can tell you, it's a lot easier to create a compelling mystery than it is to pay it off. Moore absolutely captivates the reader and invests them in finding out what actually happened. I think he came up with a fairly innovative way to resolve at least one of the crimes, and maybe I could buy it, but I think it unfolded too quickly to feel earned. Combine that with the fact that it stretches credulity a little too far, I can't give a completely unqualified recommendation. However, Agatha Christie herself closed out one of her best stories in a similar fashion, so it's possible if the scene was written just a little bit better I would have been more on board.
If you're looking for a quick read and a well-crafted mystery that can be unpredictable (in a good way), The Holdout has my vote. There are shortcomings, sure, but I still really enjoyed this book and would love to talk about it with anyone else who reads it! Hit me up at winpopcultureconcierge at gmail dot com.
Buy The Holdout at Bookshop*
Content Warning for The Holdout - Although there are few graphic details, the primary mystery is centered around the disappearance of a child. Also, a brief depiction of attempted sexual assault of an adult is included.
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