Over the past decade, Stephen King has been experimenting with the form and content of the crime fiction series, mixing elements of the police procedural with the supernatural thriller. The opportunity to employ recurring characters, both major and minor, has been a hugely successful endeavor. The inaugural volume, “Mr. Mercedes,” won the best-selling Maine author the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award.

Ex-cop Bill Hodges is still the clear protagonist as the next two installments, “Finders Keepers” and “End of Watch,” shift more of the narrative emphasis onto Holly Gibney, Bill’s painfully shy but admirably perceptive researcher. King writes that Holly was only supposed to be a walk-on character in “Mr. Mercedes.” Instead, he writes, “She just stole the book and stole my heart. ‘Holly’ is all her.”

Always nearly broke and having been told by her mother and uncle her entire life that she’s incompetent, Holly has taken the abuse to heart. She is a neurotic Watson to Bill Hodges’ working class, Midwestern Sherlock. They team up as private eyes. After Bill dies of pancreatic cancer, however, Holly toughens up, having learned a few lessons about the nature of evil without sacrificing her essential goodness.

Holly plays a key role in “The Outsider,” a sequel of sorts to the Bill Hodges trilogy, with a stronger supernatural hook. “If It Bleeds,” completed just before COVID struck, is the title novella in King’s most recent story collection, and features a malevolent shapeshifter who nearly kills Holly and her young friends Jerome and Barbara Robinson.

“Holly” finds the heroine recuperating in the wake of the events chronicled in “If It Bleeds.”

It all starts as Holly responds to an increasingly frantic series of phone calls from potential client Penny Dahl. Penny’s daughter Bonnie disappeared after buying a snack at a local convenience store and leaving her bicycle behind. Although their relationship has been rocky of late, the mother is certain her daughter would never vanish voluntarily, leaving behind only a note that says, “I’ve had enough.”


There’s no danger of a spoiler in the first few chapters; the culprits are identified from the start. Holly is no Columbo and there’s no “Just one more thing…” in the last act. But the way in which the plot is revealed is a structural gamble that pays off well.

“Holly” benefits from a strong set of villains. Emily and Rodney Harris are a pair of seemingly frail professors emeriti at a mid-sized Midwestern university, passionate about poetry and nutrition. Beneath their respectability runs a wide strain of cruelty and ruthlessness, as evidenced by the cage and wood chipper set up in their basement.

Together, the Harrises are more formidable than they look, especially Em. Roddy is beginning to lose his mind and memory, and Em is in many ways the more powerful of the two. A well-known antagonist of the former president, King makes sure to let his readers know that both Harrises voted for Trump.

As she searches for Bonnie Dahl, Holly unwittingly puts herself on a collision course with the Harrises. The way, however, is circuitous, with stops to interview witnesses with connections to the missing young woman: her not-good-for-much ex-boyfriend, her best friend at the local library, a skateboarder who hangs out by the Dairy Whip. Each adds to the trail of metaphorical crumbs leading to that ominous basement.

Other members of the supporting cast return to keep the plot moving. Holly’s business partner Pete is out of commission, hit hard by COVID, though not lethally. Jerome and Barbara make appearances from college and high school, with a big side plot about Barbara’s burgeoning career as a poet. (It’s fun to read King’s musings on modern verse.)

Unlike her daughter, Charlotte Gibney refused to believe the pandemic wasn’t a hoax, and kept her own secrets about Holly’s financial stability. As Holly uncovers the truth about her own life, the pain of the revelations threatens her own stability. But she’s a different person than she was when she met Bill Hodges, and stronger still when she finally faces Rodney and Emily Harris.


King seems to be enjoying himself, poking at the Trumpists and the antivaxxers but turning serious when the deadly ironies of the pandemic become clear. He obviously loves writing about the formerly reclusive Holly, and that enthusiasm is infectious. It’s the little details that are important, the sloppily parked car, the bicycle helmet left behind.
King is so prolific that he could likely write a Holly Gibney mystery every year. But it probably would serve her better if she were doled out sparingly, to make each new episode special. In any case, she surely deserves further episodes in the spotlight.

King writes, “She can pick (the phone) up and go on with the business of investigating. That means touching evil, of which there is no end.”

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:


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