Review: The Holdout by Graham Moore
This book was my March BOTM this year, and when I picked it I knew that I wasn't necessarily in for a great read - this is kind of your run-of-the-mill, garden variety, perennial cheap and slightly crappy thriller with a legal twist that most murder mysteries don't have. The Holdout was definitely a cheap thriller, but it also felt far more sloppy than other outings in this genre do.
The plot is basically a very (very) thinly-veiled retelling of the Henry Fonda movie 12 Angry Men (which, incidentally, I do highly recommend). It's the story of a juror, Maya Seale, on an infamous trial from ten years ago who finds herself accused of murdering another juror from that same trial. That Graham Moore borrows the plot and just changes a few character names isn't saved by the fact that he waits some 100-odd pages to make a joke about the fact that he's ripping off a story that's already been told. He also borrows a lot of tropes from other writers and stories and books, and seems to think that if he just has a character make a passing reference to that story he's in the clear for not having done any original story outlining himself - quite a few chapters are lifted right out of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and The Murder on the Orient Express - and I guess it would fly if you're completely unfamiliar with the better examples of thrillers, but if you've read or seen even one classic this book has got nothing new or interesting to offer.
Maybe it would have been more forgiveable if the mysteries had been even remotely interesting - but they weren't. The mystery of the trial that Maya Seale was a juror on was the disappearance of fifteen-year-old Jessica Silver. Her English teacher is the one who's accused of killing her and he goes to trial even though police never turn up Jessica's body. The trial develops through the point of view of the individual jurors, and the big 'scandal' that the rest of the story hinges on is that Maya and Rick (the juror who ends up getting murdered) are sleeping together and fall in luuuuuuurve throughout their sequestration, and they have this whole thing that hinges on not discussing the case but assuming that they are on the same side of it - and then Maya is the sole voice of dissent in the conviction process, Rick is outraged, and a crappier version of 12 Angry Men with shitty dialogue, bad characterization, terrible character and plot development plays out across a 325-page book with Maya also playing amateur detective on who murdered Rick and let her take the fall for it.
All the elements are there for this to be a good story, but Moore prioritizes sensationalism and contemporary hot points over crafting a thoughtful, coherent thriller that actually stands up to the test of suspension of disbelief. The entire time I was reading this, I was stuck on the incompetence of the judge, the prosecutor, the police, and the bailiff in the trial scenes, and the painfulness of how hard Moore was trying to make his white protagonist a racial justice warrior and just faltering on every single interaction. Also, the dialogue is bad. He does that thing where authors inject a lot of 'likes' and 'uhms' and starts and stops into the dialogue to try and mimic contemporary, real-life conversations, but while that works in a screenplay (and, incidentally and by no means coincidentally in light of how bad the narrative writing is in this book, Graham Moore is originally a scriptwriter) it is just clunky, awkward, and horrendous to read in print. I beg you, all contemporary fiction authors - STOP DOING THIS. It doesn't make you seem relevant or attuned to reality, it makes you seem like lazy writers with a tragically limited vocabulary.
The plot is also pretty terrible. The reveals of both central mysteries were lazy twists that were not supported by anything actually built up to in the previous chapters, and relied on cheap sensationalization rather than clever writing or consistent character development to be pulled off. The relationship between Maya and Rick was never believable and always came off as forced, and the broad strokes of the rest of the jurors were just that - so broad as to not allow for the possibility of any inner life or thoughts that were not articulated out loud to the narrator.
The only positives of this book were: 1) the ambiguity of the ending and 2) the points the author made about the injustice inherent in the criminal justice system, which I do agree with even as his over-the-top, let-me-bash-you-over-the-head, be-amazed-by-my-political-wokeness moralizing and philosophizing of those points lacked any of the subtlety or originality of thought that I do tend to like in my thrillers.
Honestly, I've said it before and I'll say it again - if you want a good thriller you're best off going to the classics. Agatha Christie did it the best and nobody has done it better than she has.
Anyway, after this book I've had to rush order some more Dorothy Dunnett just to get through the next (at minimum) two weeks quarantined with my dear, beloved parents before they drive me insane.