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Stephen King’s ‘Holly’ is a journey into the dark heart of noir crime fiction

A memorable character from the master of horror returns as a private investigator, unraveling mysterious disappearances in a small Midwest town

Stephen King
Writer Stephen King at a literary gala event in New York; May 2018.Evan Agostini (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Juan Carlos Galindo

Stephen King reached an enviable milestone in his literary career long ago. With over sixty international bestsellers, King is the unparalleled master of horror, boasting an overwhelmingly creative universe and exceptional storytelling abilities. In 2014, King made a foray into the noir crime genre with Mr. Mercedes, the first book in a trilogy featuring detective Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney, a private investigator who gradually gained prominence in various King books and is now the protagonist of her own story in Holly (Scribner, 2023).

In his foreword to If it Bleeds (Scribner, 2020), a novella that marked Detective Holly Gibney’s first solo flight after the Bill Hodges trilogy, King said, “I just love Holly, and I wish she were a real person… She just walked into the first book she was in, Mr. Mercedes, and she more or less stole the book, and she stole my heart.”

In Holly, Gibney is still the head of Finders Keepers, the private detective agency she inherited from Hodges, focusing mainly on small cases. Young siblings Jerome and Barbara Robinson, well-known to readers of the trilogy, along with their partner Pete, join Holly to solve a peculiar case. Holly skillfully uncovers a thread that reveals a series of seemingly unrelated disappearances. These long-ignored crimes have a common link: a bizarre, elderly couple. Don’t worry — there are no spoilers here. It’s not a mystery novel, nor a thriller wrapped around a mystery. We know who the bad guys are here. What we don’t know is when they are going to cross paths with Holly, how she’s going to nail them for their crimes, and what they’ll do to Holly in the process. If there is one thing certain about King’s novels, it’s that his characters never emerge unscathed. The book unfolds in two intertwined timelines. Between 2018 and 2021, we watch these two illustrious professors commit their crimes — the why of their crimes is also revealed. The novel then jumps to the present, when Holly decides to go after the couple. It’s the most procedural part of the book, much like a typical crime novel and packed with intricate details.

Holly’s solo flight carries a certain risk: the danger of becoming a cliché, someone who evokes sympathy due to her particular flaws. However, Holly Gibney defies these concerns and emerges as a well-constructed character. This novel, along with future stories planned by the author (King has already hinted at some), will ensure her enduring presence in the King universe. It’s evident that King understands the importance of continuity in a genre filled with iconic heroes like Sherlock Holmes, Harry Bosch, John Rebus, Petra Delicado and Tess Monaghan.

Mr. Mercedes
Brendan Gleeson and Harry Treadaway in a scene from the 'Mr. Mercedes' television series.

Holly has faced significant losses in her life. Her mentor and friend Bill Hodges passed away from pancreatic cancer. Her cousin Janey was killed by a psychopath, who also drove another cousin to suicide. Brady Hartsfield, the antagonist of the Mr. Mercedes trilogy, was responsible for these tragedies. Holly also had a difficult relationship with her mother, Mrs. Charlotte, who tragically succumbed to Covid-19 at the beginning of this novel (which includes more than a few digs at Donald Trump). Holly stopped smoking in If it Bleeds, but here she has succumbed once again to her nicotine addiction. She now confidently maintains direct eye contact during interrogations, stands tall with her shoulders back, and confronts problems head-on. Despite her aversion to violence, she may reluctantly resort to it when required. As a 55-year-old frustrated poet, she has overcome numerous challenges and accomplished a great deal. Holly Gibney is no longer the train wreck we once knew.

One of the secondary plotlines in the book is about young Barbara, an aspiring poet and future Princeton student who is mentored by a legendary author. This storyline adds a fascinating element of love for literature. It is clear that King understands the importance of integrating each layer of the story into the broader plot. This integration plays a decisive role in maintaining the rhythm and final resolution of the book. King stays within the bounds of reality, while still delivering the horror we have come to expect from supernatural tales like End of Watch and If it Bleeds.

King also explores another key element of crime fiction: social themes. Without being preachy, King weaves in elements like the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump’s erosive impact on social harmony in the United States, and the Covid-19 pandemic. These themes are seamlessly woven into the plot and the characters’ attitudes. The pandemic is prominently featured in the novel, (King has tweeted extensively in favor of vaccines, science and facemasks, and against conspiracy theorists), and the author’s own attitudes are reflected in the character of Holly. In an afterword, King assures that he would have fairly represented a Covid-denier if he had chosen to include a main character with these views.

“You know, just when you think you’ve seen the worst that human beings have to offer… turns out, you’re wrong. There is no end to evil,” says one of the secondary characters, a phrase that Holly makes her own. The only consolation is that this evil continues to be part of the literary corpus of horror masters like King, and now also in his noir novels. Bill Hodges once confided in Holly that his literary tastes were limited to Michael Connelly’s stories about detective Harry Bosch, and Ed McBain’s police procedurals set in the 87th Precinct. In his unique style, Stephen King showcases his crime genre prowess with the exceptional Holly, placing him on par with these timeless classics.

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