Holly by Stephen King: a timely work of crime fiction about not judging a book by its cover

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At the age of 76, with nearly 70 novels and short story collections behind him, American author Stephen King shows few signs of slowing down. His latest novel Holly, hefty in scale and elaborate in plotting, is the work of an energetic writer, not one who is getting tired.

The book is a compelling composite of the crime and horror genres, as addictive as the cigarettes which the title character finds herself smoking, as she investigates a spate of abductions in a midwest town.

One of the incidental pleasures offered by Holly is its allusion to books from earlier in King’s long literary career. The terrifying incarceration experienced by the novel’s victims, for example, recalls that of the central figure in Misery (1987). A reference to blood poured over a high school prom queen summons up thoughts of Carrie (1974), King’s first novel.

That said, this new book shows King experimenting and innovating, rather than simply being content to reactivate the tropes of his previous fiction.

As well as showing that literary vitality is not reserved for the young, Holly strikes other blows against ageist thinking. The novel is a “whydunit”, not a whodunit, so it is no spoiler to reveal that its villains are two elderly professors, long retired from their lecturing careers at Bell College of Arts and Sciences (a fictitious institution that seems, from geographical markers and references to Cleveland sports teams, to be in Ohio).

Instead of engaging in pursuits lazily associated with retirees – daytime television, say, or the newspaper’s quick crossword – Emily and Roddy Harris embark on an end-of-life killing spree. They evade detection so long precisely because of a tendency not to suspect the elderly of multiple homicides (their status as academics, perhaps, makes them doubly exempt). As Holly says ruefully: No one expects old people to be serial killers...

Read Dr Andrew Dix's review of 'Holly' in full on The Conversation website.