Holly Turns a Popular Stephen King Supporting Character Into a Thriller StarBooks Reviews Stephen King
Stephen King has spent quite a bit of the lead-up to Holly, the first full-length novel starring the title character, reminding us that it was never supposed to happen. His quotes about how private investigator Holly Gibney simply refused to let go of his imagination have become a key part of the book’s publicity campaign, emphasizing not only that she is a supporting player made into a star but a kind of calling King has developed in his writing.
The author’s fascination with Holly, and her way of looking at the world, has been made clear through her appearances in a half-dozen books in less than a decade, making her one of his most prolific recurring characters. But what is it about her that keeps him going back, and that made him go back to this specific story at this specific time? What called King to Holly, and was that calling worth it?
The book begins in 2021, as Holly loses her mother to COVID-19 and tries to take some time away from Finders Keepers, the detective agency she inherited from her mentor Bill Hodges. But the cases don’t stop, and when a desperate mother calls Holly for help locating her missing daughter, the detective in her can’t let go of the mystery. What begins with a single young woman going missing soon unspools into a dark web of mysterious vanishings, all pointing to a very unlikely duo of suspects. Holly’s no stranger to dark predators, even supernatural ones, but nothing can prepare her for what she finds lurking inside a stately old home where two aging academics who’ve got their particular vices down to a science.
In the same present-tense prose that’s propelled Holly’s past life on the page, King immediately re-immerses us in the world of his unconventional detective, jumping back and forth in time and even switching perspectives between hunter and hunted to give us a wide-angle view of what’s unfolding. The narration is engrossing and inviting, the characters lived-in and tactile, and the dark deeds at the core of the mystery satisfyingly eerie. But what makes Holly work is more than the thriller aspects of the narrative. What called King back to the title character was not just her voice and her mind, but what someone like Holly Gibney would make of the rapidly changing world we’ve all lived in for the past three years.
Like all of us, Holly navigates the pandemic with a layer of often frightening uncertainty tinging her daily life, even as vaccines roll out and the world starts to attempt some version of “normal” again. Like all of us, she suffers losses, confusion, even outright anger at the way those around her behave in these strange times. And, like all of us, she finds that chances for self-reflection reveal a life more complex than she perhaps realized.
Her complicated relationship with her mother takes on even more layers than were already revealed in stories like If It Bleeds; her family’s history acquires added dimension; and Holly’s own mental state is given fresh nuance, new wrinkles in which her constantly probing mind can get lost exploring. King’s Constant Readers know Holly Gibney very well, but in her first full-length novel as the central figure, King gives the character more depth than she’s ever had before, and we feel like there’s still a great deal more to discover about what satisfies her, what drives her, and what might come next.
But even more satisfying than the character achievement is the way King weaves the particular terrors of COVID into his narrative this time around. You can go into Holly looking for nothing more than a satisfying howcatchem mystery, and you’ll certainly get that, but throughout the narrative King is also keenly aware of the ways in which the pandemic made us view each other differently.
The particular dread of not knowing how healthy, how trustworthy, the person next to you might be, and the anxiety that colors once-simple interactions, is always near the surface in the book. Then, King pushes that dread further by concocting a plot in which Holly must contend with a certain kind of pandemic villain, the people who are convinced they’ve found the one true alternative path through the chaos, who will not relent no matter how many times they’re proven wrong. The presence of these people, and the threat they present to others, lingers throughout Holly, and while much of the novel fits neatly into the realm of crime thriller, it’s that presence that reminds us that horror is never far from King’s mind, or his pen.
Tense, satisfying, and rich with detail, Holly is proof not just that King had more to say about the title character, but proof that Holly herself has much more to tell us, and perhaps many more mysteries to solve. We almost certainly haven’t seen the last of her in King’s fiction, and after reading this novel, you’ll be anxious to see where Holly heads next.
Holly is available now wherever books are sold.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.