Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Graham Moore has injected into to his novels his own experience as an award-winning screenwriter, giving them a more eventful atmosphere and a quicker pace. In his most recent novel, The Holdout, he introduces us to Maya Seale, a young juror who convinces her peers as to the innocence of a suspect in a murder case. Now, ten years later, after a true-crime series reassembles the jurors, one of them is found dead in Maya’s hotel room, launching the ultimate search for truth as to what really happened the first time around.
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Graham Moore Opens the Trial of the Century
Ideally, the justice system would be not only free of outside pressures and influences, but also have the ability to unilaterally differentiate truth from lies and always offer the correct verdict. Alas, we know well enough this is far from the case in real life no matter which country you examine, to the point where some cases can become national affairs, subjected to far more than the procedure of a courtroom. In Graham Moore‘s novel The Holdout, we bear witness to such a case and its surprisingly far-reaching consequences for all those involved.
The story begins by introducing us to Maya Seale, one of the jurors on a case surrounding the disappearance of a young fifteen-year-old girl, Jessica Silver, heiress to the billions of dollars her family has amassed largely through the real estate business. The main suspect in her disappearance is her twenty-five year-old African teacher, Bobby Nock, whom the entire world seems to presume guilty. Despite it looking like an open-and-shut case, Maya manages to convince the other jurors of Nock’s innocence, and thus the case seems to end in quite a bit of controversy.
Fast forward ten years later, and Maya is now a defence attorney, strongly marked forever by her experience as a juror. A true-crime documentary team has reassembled all the jurors from Nock’s trial, in an attempt to chronicle the truth behind the events shrouded in mystery for the rest of the country. This is where Maya’s problems really begin, as one of the jurors is found murdered in her hotel room, obviously making her the prime suspect. As she begins to realize, the case from ten years ago is far from being closed, and her only hope to save herself is to find the truth behind it all, if such a thing is even possible.
The Fantasy Courtroom in The Holdout
From the short synopsis of the story, I think it’s quite logical to assume Moore is about to treat us to a courtroom drama largely revolving around the real world, but as I found out after I got into the story, it’s not exactly the case… and this is where I feel some of the negativity towards this book comes from. Even though it is presented through the scope of a legal thriller, at its heart The Holdout is actually a whodunit murder mystery first and foremost, with the legal elements being integrated on top of it.
In other words, if you’re looking for a realistic and legally-accurate courtroom drama, you won’t really find much of it here. While there are certainly plenty of legal elements to this story, from my understanding and prior research not all of them are accurate, and I think it’s very much worth simply accepting this fact and moving on with the story.
In the realm of fiction authors are often forced to create a balancing act between realistic accuracy and the elements they want to introduce for the sake of entertainment, and in this case Moore chose to balance on the latter side of the equation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this in my opinion, just something one ought to keep in mind when reading The Holdout.
I will say, however, Moore‘s depiction of jury duty was quite interesting and revealing, feeling much closer to the real world than some of the other legal elements, and I think it’s obviously due to him having actually served as a juror in 2008. Seeing the process from the eyes and mind of a juror makes us privy to many smaller unique details, and they all come together to create a world close enough to our own for us to accept it, at least for the sake of the story.
Murder Mystery First
With the discussion of realism and legal accuracy out of the way, I think it’s time we move on and actually examine the story itself. I found the premise for the plot to have actually been very well constructed, being believable, especially in terms of the chain of logical events it sets it into motion. I don’t remember finding any plot holes, nor do I remember my suspension of disbelief to have been challenged in any significant way.
I think this is one area where Moore‘s experience and talents as a screenwriter are the most visible. The structure of the entire plot of The Holdout, from start to finish, is extremely solid and the transitions from one event to the next are always smooth. Despite the fact we jump back and forth in time relatively often, we are always given clear indicators of where we are, what is happening and why. I would even venture to say it would take some effort on the part of the reader to become confused in such a crystal-clear design.
As far as the actual murder mystery itself is concerned, I found it was great without necessarily breaking any frontiers in the genre. It’s more or less a classic situation where we follow one character, Maya, as she searches for clues to uncover the culprit among a small cast of potential suspects. There are definitely some unexpected twists woven into the plot here and there, and ultimately it did manage to dish out a powerful enough ending to be memorable.
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Personally-speaking though, what made the mystery as compelling as it was for me was the depth of Moore‘s characterization skills. Rather than simply being a suspect, each person is fully-formed and developed as much as a book of this genre allows, even to the point where we can quickly learn to recognize them by their distinctive voices, attitudes and opinions. The author manages to turn characters into actual people, and I think this goes a long way towards making any book magnitudes more enjoyable.
The Final Verdict
The Holdout by Graham Moore is, despite its few flaws in regards to legal accuracy, a very compelling whodunit murder mystery with an engaging premise, a notable cast of fully-developed characters, and an overall story arc which kept me glued for all the good questions it kept asking.
If you’re looking to enjoy a solid murder mystery capable of keeping you entertained from start to finish and don’t mind some liberties taken with realism, I would strongly recommend you check this book out.
Graham Moore is an American author and screenwriter best-known for his novel The Sherlockian, which earned him the 2011 Anthony Award for Best First novel, and his screenplay for the film The Imitation Game, which won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He has so far written a couple of other novels, The Last Days of Night and most recently in 2020, The Holdout.