In Stephen King’s Latest, Beware the Kindly Old Professors

HOLLY, by Stephen King

A friend of mine has become a scaredy-cat since having a baby. She has been forcing herself to watch horror movies through parted fingers, hoping they will steel her nerves for the frights of everyday life. I thought of my friend’s experiment while reading “Holly,” the new mystery from Stephen King: Here is a thriller scary enough to test its readers’ mettle — and toughen them up.

Holly Gibney, a private investigator, is attending her mother’s funeral when a woman calls asking for help finding her missing daughter. From a classic hard-boiled premise, the investigation unspools in rich, generous storytelling, its tone more color-saturated than noir. Like Kate Atkinson in her Jackson Brodie series, King writes a procedural with Dickensian scope: In “Holly,” we encounter reversals of fortune, a surprise inheritance, and a wide cast of friends and adversaries.

Holly once wanted to be a poet. She is partial to a mai tai “because it makes her think of palm trees, turquoise water and white sand beaches.” She likes movies, and has a habit of quoting scraps of dialogue to herself. She was raised by a difficult, overbearing mother whose remembered maxims continue to scold her, and she’s still wary around teenage boys after being bullied in school. Holly is loyal, resourceful and unstintingly conscientious: She carries around an empty cough drop tin as a personal ashtray. Other people might toss their cigarettes on the ground, “but that doesn’t mean she has to add her own filth to the general litter.”

When Holly appears on the page, you never have the sense of an author pulling her strings. Her decisions feel genuine, like Holly herself is running the show. She first appeared in “Mr. Mercedes,” the start of King’s Detective Bill Hodges trilogy, and continued to evolve in “Finders Keepers” and “End of Watch.” King has said that Holly “was supposed to be a walk-on character in ‘Mr. Mercedes’ and she just kind of stole the book and stole my heart.” Her presence balances the new novel’s darkness. And there is quite a lot of darkness.

The missing young woman vanished from Red Bank Avenue, a derelict strip of self-storage units, warehouses and empty lots. Up the hill from the avenue, the retired professors Emily and Rodney Harris live in a row of expensive Victorian houses “with impeccable paint jobs, bow windows and lots of gingerbread trim.” With their bon mots and cocktail parties, the Harrises are respected members of the college community. No one would suspect that their home has a cage in its basement.

The professors are cultivated gourmands, monsters who wear their education and affluence like a mask. An emerita professor of English, Emily will discuss literature with a young Black poet, while privately muttering racial slurs to herself. She “thinks Donald Trump is a boor, but he’s also a sorcerer; with some abracadabra magic she doesn’t understand (but in her deepest heart envies) he has turned America’s podgy, apathetic middle class into revolutionaries.” What the professors do to their victims is a stark expression of a society tearing itself apart. Their crimes are queasily believable against the lurid, cartoonish strains of fear and division that surround them.

This is a book with a high body count, though most of the deaths in its pages aren’t caused by its villains — they’re from Covid. Holly’s investigation begins in July 2021, as hospitals are piling up with patients and temporary morgues have opened to handle the overflow of bodies. “When this is over,” Holly thinks, “no one will believe it really happened. Or if they do, they won’t understand how it happened.”

Her own mother, Charlotte, “attended an anti-mask rally in the state capital, waving a sign reading MY BODY MY CHOICE (a sentiment that did not keep her from being adamantly anti-abortion).” Within weeks, she was dead from the virus. In contrast, Holly is fastidious, carrying around masks and nitrile gloves, inviting mockery from those who don’t share her scruples.

From vaccinations to the Capitol riot, “Holly” charges into the thorniest contemporary debates with gleeful recklessness. With the same abandon, King bends the rules of a procedural, not least by revealing the perpetrators’ identities in the opening chapter. One character quotes the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, whose advice seems to be King’s own guiding principle: “If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.” King’s gambles pay off: Knowing the professors’ culpability only gives the narrative more urgency, especially as the gruesome nature of their crimes becomes horrifyingly clear.

During my time reading “Holly,” I woke screaming from a night terror, which was unexpected, and which everyone who reads the book will understand. What makes King’s work so much more frightening than that of most other suspense writers, what elevates it to night-terror levels, isn’t his cruelty to his characters: It’s his kindness. King describes his characters’ interior landscapes, their worries and plans, with a focus like a giant benevolent beam. You can sense the goodness running through them, and that current of goodness is what makes the acts of violence so disturbing.

King is having fun in “Holly,” absolutely — the story zings along — but his work also raises questions that cut keenly. Holly “likes to think (but doesn’t quite believe) there’s a kind of providence at work in matters of right and wrong, blind but powerful, like that statue of Lady Justice holding out her scales. That there’s a force in the affairs of men and women standing on the side of the weak and unsuspecting, and against evil.”

But her work takes its toll. When Holly reflects on her job as a private investigator, she imagines another life for herself, one in which murderers “would only be cable news fodder, which could be muted or turned off in favor of a romcom.” She knows an appalling truth: “There’s no end to evil.”

So why face such matters head on, whether as a reader or a detective? After staring directly at the worst sorts of evil a human can commit, do we come away stronger? Or just more sad? The answer seems to be both. Maybe, like Holly, we can’t help but take the call.

Flynn Berry is the author of the novels “Northern Spy,” “A Double Life,” “Under the Harrow” and the forthcoming “Trust Her.”

HOLLY | By Stephen King | 449 pp. | Scribner | $30

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