Written by Graham Moore — The courtroom drama is a familiar and well worn trope in the land of crime fiction. The likes of John Grisham have made a fortune out of it, Michael Connelly has created his own little niche with his Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, and one of the best books of recent years, Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh, managed to find a whole new angle for it.
Has Academy Award-winning scriptwriter and bestselling author Graham Moore managed to follow suit? Well yes, and no. There’s more than a touch of Sidney Lumet’s iconic movie 12 Angry Men here, although as the book is set in the 21st century, this particular jury has female as well as male members. One of those females is Maya Seale, a young, idealistic woman who is about to make waves – and headlines – in the trial of a young black man accused of murdering a well-to-do, blonde and beautiful teenager who was one of his pupils.
We first meet Maya in the present day, 10 years after the trial that changed her life, and the lives of every other jury member. She’s now a defence lawyer with a prominent Los Angeles law firm and although she is unhappy at still being known as THAT juror, it certainly hasn’t done her career any harm.
You see, Maya was the holdout on a jury that was convinced of the guilt of supply teacher Bobby Nock. But Maya disagreed, and gradually she managed to turn everyone else around to her way of thinking. Jessica Silver’s body was never found and her killer has never been caught – and ever since, Maya has tried to distance herself from it all.
When the the 10th anniversary of the case looms, one of Maya’s fellow jurors gets in touch. Rick Leonard tells her a TV network is planning a special programme and wants to get all of the original jurors together once more. Maya says no – she’s unhappy to revisit what occurred in the juror room. But then her bosses put pressure on her and she acquiesces, reluctantly.
It soon becomes clear that Maya and Rick have history, and she invites him to her room at the hotel where the jurors were sequestered back then and where the TV company has booked them for programme recording. They row, she leaves to cool off and returns to find Rick murdered. Suddenly, Maya sees the legal process from a completely different angle – that of the accused. Can she prove her innocence and find the killer?
Her digging reveals that Rick had been obsessed with the case, and kept in-depth files on each juror. What Maya finds in those files prompts her to rethink everything she so vehemently believed a decade ago. Did her actions back then allow a guilty man to go free?
The Holdout is a niftily plotted book that I can definitely see being made into a movie or TV series, with the narrative skipping from viewpoint to viewpoint and jumping between decades like a frog on a lily pad. This is a little disconcerting at first, but once you get into the narrative flow it is easier to navigate. There are also twists and revelations aplenty, some of which may not come as much of a surprise, while others will leave you gasping. Sitting in the midst of the maelstrom is Maya, a multi-layered character who is by turns hugely likeable and utterly frustrating.
So there’s plenty to like here, so why, ultimately, did I feel a little deflated? The Holdout is being feted as one of the books of the year, but for me this is a little overblown. It’s an enjoyable read, but not up to the high bar set by Thirteen.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars