The Holdout, by Graham Moore
The snippet on the cover of this bang-up-to-date book tells the reader that it is a story which concerns a legal case: “One juror changed the verdict. What if she was wrong?”; so far, so good, but it is much more than that, and the attraction of the way the story is written is that the background details, to support the narrative that commences in 2019, although its origin is ten years previously, are served up (one might almost say ‘insinuated’) into the current action a chapter at a time, alternating with the present.
The protagonist in 2019 is an up-and-coming lawyer, Maya Seale, who is based in Los Angeles. Ten years previously, an Obama supporter and newly arrived in the City of Angels from New York, although originally from New Mexico, she decides, because “[i]t might even provide some fodder for her writing…one of the many new and informative experiences to which she should keep herself open.”, to accept a summons for jury duty (which most people, evidently, seem to try as assiduously as possible, to avoid), in a case where a young black man stood accused of the first-degree murder of a fifteen-year old white girl (and Jewish, although that does seem to be incidental to the plot, other than her father being a significant benefactor in the city), with whom he had been having an ostensibly improper relationship: improper both because she was underage, but also because he was her teacher. Before the trial even starts, Maya meets Rick Leonard, another anonymous juror, the man who subsequently becomes her antagonist although, initially, she is attracted to him, and they have a brief affair.
The trial is protracted, lasting twenty weeks, and the jury is sequestered in a hotel for nearly the whole of this time; in the final “three weeks of heated deliberations” Maya tries, and eventually succeeds, in converting all eleven contrarian jurors to her verdict of not guilty; the verdict is very unpopular however, because the consensus both in the courtroom and the wider world outside is that Bobby Nock was guilty, even though, as later becomes apparent, no body had been found. The whole process through which she has gone encourages Maya to train as a lawyer, which she does, successfully, finishing eleventh in her class at UC Berkeley Law, and ‘making partner’ at her employer in three years. Immediately after the accused had been acquitted, however, “[u]nder the hot glare of public condemnation”, Rick recants publicly, and claims that the “unjust verdict had been entirely Maya’s fault”, and “accused her of bullying him into acquitting a man he’d always been sure, deep down, was a murderer.”, which, naturally, ends their infatuation.
Ten years later, a reunion is organised by a podcast company, proposing to produce an eight-hour ‘docuseries’ for Netflix, adapted from their podcast by the name of Murder Town, but not all of the erstwhile jurors attend, and during the night of the reunion in the same hotel, one of them is killed, a crime of which Maya herself becomes accused. Luckily for Maya, her boss, a senior partner, whom she engages as her attorney, is able to persuade the presiding judge to let her out on bail, albeit in the amount of one million dollars, and the story then unfolds thereafter describing Maya’s quest to prove her innocence, and the back-stories of the other jurors, as well as the original accused and the first victim’s family, reveal details which contribute to an intricate, but believable picture of human foibles & weaknesses.
The dénouement, although not entirely unpredictable, is nevertheless skilfully revealed after significant facts, understandably hitherto concealed, are revealed about certain key characters in the story. Given that the writer, as well as being a bestselling author, is an award-winning screenwriter (one of his plaudits is an Academy Award for The Imitation Game), it is hardly surprising that characters are well fleshed-out, and it is quite easy to imagine the chapters being played out as scenes in a film, complete with flashbacks, although these have to be handled carefully, to avoid accusations of laziness. The contemporary nature of the story is definitely a bonus, but I found the story engaging, and held my attention and curiosity right to the end.