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It’s always fun when a great supporting character earns a starring vehicle. Boba Fett got his own TV show – so did Laverne and Shirley. The Minions and Black Widow received solo movies, and now Stephen King’s unassuming ace sleuth Holly Gibney has the literary equivalent of a blockbuster.
Both intimate and sprawling in its ambitions, the mystery novel “Holly” (Scribner, 464 pp., ★★★ Out of four) is the master of horror’s latest detective outing with the quirky title character. Holly broke out in King’s outstanding 2010s “Mr. Mercedes” trilogy, was a surprise character in the 2018 supernatural thriller “The Outsider” and took the reins of a spotlight novella in his 2020 “If It Bleeds” collection. It’s not Holly’s best case – because the legendary King’s set her bar pretty high – but it is an insightful deep dive into understanding the author’s fan-favorite private eye.
When the book catches up with her in July 2021, Holly’s weathering the pandemic and grieving the recent death of her mother, an overbearing woman with whom she long had a complicated relationship – even her mom’s Zoom funeral is tough for Holly to navigate.
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With her out on leave and partner Pete laid up with COVID-19, the detective agency Finder Keepers is closed when a desperate mom named Penny Dahl leaves a voicemail hoping that someone can find her daughter Bonnie, an assistant librarian at Bell College of Arts and Sciences. No one’s seen her in three weeks and her bike was found with a cryptic note attached: “I’ve had enough.” Everyone around Holly thinks she needs some time off, but since she has a hard time saying no when people are in need, she takes the case.
But “Holly” isn’t exactly a normal whodunit, because the villains are introduced in the first chapter: Rodney and Emily Harris are elderly semi-retired academics well known at the college – he a respected biologist/nutritionist, she a highly regarded literature professor – but what they’ve been doing in their basement in secret for several years is downright hellish. (King’s given his Constant Readers an iconic catalog of terror, and the Harris’ whole deal is right up there with his most unnerving situations.).
The book chronicles their evil doings of the past decade in parallel with Holly’s investigation, looking for clues and digging up a number of strange disappearances, from a helpful bowling employee to a visiting writing professor, that may or may not be connected. A number of subplots arise, Holly comes to grips with longtime family issues while also struggling with her confidence working the case, and the novel loses some focus and momentum in the middle before story lines come together and steamroll toward the end.
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There are payoffs for those who’ve kept up with Holly’s previous appearances. Old friends such as her buddy Jerome and his young sister Barbara play key roles, and previous culprits from past episodes still loom in Holly’s mind. More of her troubled backstory comes to light, plus her late mentor Bill Hodges (the main man of the “Mr. Mercedes” books) continues to be an important guide as she recalls his bon mots like “Sometimes the universe throws you a rope.”.
The greats of detective fiction are known for their iconic protagonists – Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade – and King, whose notable noir bent has come later in his storied career. He clearly loves Holly and she springs off the page unlike most of the writer’s colorful cast of characters. King’s created monsters – human and otherwise – for decades to examine humanity, our foibles and the unknowable strength we carry inside. Holly is the flip of that in crime-solving form, the imperfect but determined angel among all those demons.
While it might fall short of top-tier King, “Holly” satisfies as a fitfully freaky thriller, a solid exploration of the title character as a soulful beacon of hope, and a reminder of how important it is to answer that call when it comes.