By: Graham Moore
It’s the most sensational case of the decade. Fifteen-year-old Jessica Silver, heiress to a billion-dollar real estate fortune, vanishes on her way home from school, and her teacher, Bobby Nock, a twenty-five year-old African American man, is the prime suspect. The subsequent trial taps straight into America’s most pressing preoccupations: race, class, sex, law enforcement, and the lurid sins of the rich and famous. It’s an open-and-shut case for the prosecution, and a quick conviction seems all but guaranteed—until Maya Seale, a young woman on the jury, convinced of Nock’s innocence, persuades the rest of the jurors to return the verdict of not guilty, a controversial decision that will change all their lives forever.
Flash forward ten years. A true-crime docuseries reassembles the jury, with particular focus on Maya, now a defense attorney herself. When one of the jurors is found dead in Maya’s hotel room, all evidence points to her as the killer. Now, she must prove her own innocence—by getting to the bottom of a case that is far from closed.
As the present-day murder investigation entwines with the story of what really happened during their deliberation, told by each of the jurors in turn, the secrets they have all been keeping threaten to come out—with drastic consequences for all involved.
While it is true that The Holdout is technically told from the perspective of all the jurors, the main character is Maya Seale. I enjoyed Maya’s tough attitude and classic lawyer bullshitting. She’s a strong woman who lost a large chunk of her life to infamy while simultaneously building a career on it. I respect any woman who could do something so difficult in a situation where an entire country knows her name and hates her choices even when made for the right reason. Maya’s personality along with Bobby Nock and Rick Leonard’s were the strongest and most fleshed-out of the story.
Unfortunately, despite the well-written protagonist, I didn’t much care for or about any of the other characters. I believe the main reason the reader sees the story from the other characters’ point of view is so we understand their intentions and motivations. This understanding only goes so far as to benefit the plot though and leaves the other jurors incredibly one-dimensional. I don’t like characters that exist for the sole purpose of driving a plot and who ultimately have no agency in the story. We don’t really know who they are, but we are supposed to understand their capabilities and personalities through shallow stereotypes and a brief chapter interlude. That doesn’t translate well in my opinion.
I have no idea how many people who read this blog have watched The Andy Griffith Show, but I would like to imagine it’s the majority. In one of the later episodes called “Aunt Bee the Juror,” Aunt Bee is tasked with deciding the innocence or guilt of a man accused of murder. All the other jurors believe he is guilty, but Aunt Bee believes through gut instinct that he is innocent which stops a swift verdict from being rendered. The other jurors are furious with her because they believe she is being difficult and not seeing the “obvious” answer. Despite their disdain and belittlement, she holds out long enough for everyone to discover that she was right. An innocent man does not go to jail and the guilty one does. Aunt Bee is seen as a hero for her efforts, and the episode ends in such a way that makes people sleep better at night. Maya Seale in The Holdout is very similar to Aunt Bee except she is viewed as a villain. One of the greatest parts of thriller novels compared to family television programs is how real the problems can seem. Maya isn’t living in Mayberry, and sometimes the hard choices just piss people off. And sometimes life leaves you with more questions than answers.
Maya convinced the other jurors to vote “not guilty” on Bobby Nock’s behalf, but that doesn’t mean they know who killed Jessica. For ten years they are left to wonder while the world believes Maya Seale was responsible for letting a murderer go free. That kind of media attention can ruin someone’s life and unfortunately can happen to real people.
Additionally, The Holdout tackles the issue of racial prejudice in a very direct way. One of the main points of the story is that black jurors serving on the case of another black man could be seen by white people as “having sympathy for” or “having something in common” with the defendant. No matter what race you are, you would never say that you have something in common with every person who has the same skin pigment as you. I’m white and CERTAINLY don’t have ANYTHING in common with many other white people. I wouldn’t want to be viewed by society as having sympathy for a potential murderer simply because they were white like me. Logic like that should function as a two-way street in a rational society. We can’t expect that of any other race either, but the system is skewed. Many times, juries in predominantly black communities end up being completely white because prosecutors believe a black jury would be sympathetic. It’s a disgusting mentality to have and detrimental to the health and balance of our legal system. There is also a lot of harm that can be done to people of color when white people try to be the hero of the story. It happens every day and unfortunately, most people of privilege either don’t notice it or refuse to notice it. Those points I believe were delivered with sincerity from Moore who, it must be noted, is a white man. And because he’s a white man, I’ll go ahead and say that I hope he was basing his black characters and their perspectives on research and interviews rather than his own personal opinions. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt when possible.
My favorite is as follows:
“The only thing worse than being wrong is the bottomless need to prove that you aren’t”
Overall rating: 3.5