Book Review: The Hollows by Jess Montgomery
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Series: Book 2 of Kinship
Publisher: Minotaur Books (January 14, 2020)
Length: 343 pages
Definitely not my usual kind of read, but when I was first pitched The Hollows by Jess Montgomery, I went and dug around for some information. This was how I found out the book is part of a historical mystery series inspired by Maude Collins, Ohio’s first female sheriff, and that was enough to pique my interest.
While The Hollows is technically the second book in the Kinship sequence, following Montgomery’s debut The Widows, I had absolutely no problems jumping right into the story. The author does an excellent job catching us up with the protagonist, Lily Ross, who became the sheriff of the small mining town of Kinship, Ohio after the death of her husband who had previously held the post. The year is 1926, and while most the townsfolk know and trust Lily, not everyone is ready to openly support a woman sheriff, making her even more determined to show she has what it takes. On her latest case, she is called out to the Moonvale Tunnel, a site used as part of the underground railroad used to aid and shelter escaped slaves from the South during the early to mid-19th century. An elderly woman in her 70s, dressed in a nightgown with her feet wrapped in cloth, had been found dead on the tracks, and a witness report claims that she may have fallen—or was pushed by a mysterious assailant—from the hills above.
Lily’s first task is to identify the woman, whom no one in town seems to recognize, which in itself is a bit strange. With the help of her friend Marvena and a scent hound, they track the trail to an asylum in a neighboring county, from where the old woman had escaped. Lily now has a name to go with the victim, one with connections to some old families in Kinship, as well as a long history that traces back to the Civil War. Now Lily’s job is to figure out how all of it is related, though it isn’t going to be easy in the face of reticent witnesses and disturbing rumors of Klan activities on the rise again. In addition, there is the upcoming election to decide if she’ll be able to keep her position as sheriff, as well as the private struggles of her best friend Hildy Cooper who is trapped in an unwanted engagement while being romantically involved with another man. It would be so easy, and not to mention more convenient for Lily, if she simply labeled the old woman’s death an accident, the way the entire town would prefer. However, our protagonist is a damn good sheriff, and she will not rest until she finds the truth and bring those responsible to justice.
First, the good stuff: Montgomery does a great job spinning this mystery, threading in side-plots that involve many of the secondary characters, resulting in a narrative that felt bigger than it really was. I did not expect such scope when I picked up The Hollows; by the end of it, I was impressed with the way personal stories as well as the setting’s rich history were both incorporated into the larger picture. Relationships are at the forefront (in fact, occasionally they even get to be too distracting from the main mystery plot), and all the tensions flying around in a small town like Kinship where everybody is deeply connected can be likened to a pressure cooker about to explode. Almost everyone has a secret—scandals, hidden pasts, or other dangerous knowledge that can potentially ruin reputations or destroy lives.
I also liked that The Hollows made the lives of its female characters the main focus—and that goes for both protagonists and antagonists. Our heroines Lily, Marvena, Hildy are all brave and determined women, strong in their own ways. They’re ahead of their time, struggling against social norms in a time where sexism and racism are still big problems. Thing is, much of the pressure to conform is also from other women, and in Hildy’s case, from her own mother. Lily deals with discrimination as sheriff too, from people who don’t take her seriously or think she doesn’t have what it takes to do a “man’s job.” As well, she’s a widow grieving for her murdered husband, trying to raise her kids the best she can. One of the best scenes from the books, which is also one of its most touching moments, is when Lily talks to her daughter about how to deal with a bully. It’s moments like these that are the most revealing about her character and that make me want to pick up The Widows to find out more about her back story.
As for criticisms, I mentioned earlier how relationship drama would sometimes get in the way of the story’s flow. I thought the mystery plot itself dragged a bit, mainly because of these frequent detours to focus on the characters’ personal stories. Don’t get me wrong; I liked that we got to know more about the characters, but the murder investigation could have been more interesting—and the pacing improved—had things been better balanced. This being a historical novel, I was also disappointed and a little surprised I couldn’t get a stronger sense of the place and time. Montgomery is a talented writer, but her prose is sparse on description and she doesn’t take nearly enough time to establish the physical and social environment. As a result, even though my mind knew I was reading a story set in the 1920s, my heart just didn’t feel it.
But all in all, I’m very glad I decided to venture outside my comfort zone and try The Hollows. A decent historical mystery with a heavy emotional comment, this was a very good read and a nice change of pace. I will be watching for more from Jess Montgomery in the future.