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Holly Jackson: Five Survive – young adults’ crime fiction

Cover Of Five Survive By Holly Jackson
Cover of Five Survive by Holly Jackson

Published by: Electric Monkey, 2022/2023. Available from Amazon.

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A review of BookTok favourite Holly Jackson’s latest YA book, Five Survive, which went straight to No. 1 in the Nielsen Best YA Fiction list when the hardback was published in December 2022. The paperback was published in August 2023.

Holly Jackson is the author of the multi-million selling A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder series, which will soon be screened as a BBC 3 series starring Emma Myers.

The story of Five Survive

Five Survive is set in South Carolina, and is the story of six young people who set off in a borrowed RV (recreational vehicle – motorhome) to join friends on a camping holiday. They take a wrong turning and find themselves stranded on a lonely track miles from anywhere, and it’s pitch dark. Already the arguments are beginning. Then there are four explosions, and the tyres are flat. They realise that this is no freak accident; there is a sniper out there in the darkness, and for some unknown reason he’s firing at them.

Here the terror begins. Why is he aiming at them? Has he mistaken their vehicle for somebody else’s – after all, it doesn’t belong to any of them. How many snipers are there? What do they want?

And then the sniper speaks to them. ‘One of you knows something. A secret…’ ‘You can’t see me, but I can see you. If you try to run, I will shoot.’

So one of them has a secret. But who? What? And if they tell it – what will happen?

The characters

The whole story is told in the third person, but from the point of view of Red, a clever, quiet young high school student who is still emotionally damaged by the murder of her mother, a policewoman, five years ago. She is never quite sure why she has been invited on this trip.

  • Red’s best friend is Maddy, whose mother was Red’s mother’s best friend. Maddy is very protective of Red.
  • Maddy’s brother, Oliver, the oldest, most officious of the group, clearly defines himself as the leader. He loves to boast that their mother is expected to become the next District Attorney.
  • Reyna, Oliver’s girlfriend, a medic. Maddy see them as the ‘picture-perfect couple’.
  • Simon, happy-go-lucky, a bit of a drinker, shirks his responsibility though Maddy does her best to keep him sober. His uncle owns the RV.
  • Arthur, a friend of Simon. Befriends Red, sides with her when she feels out-numbered or lost, gives her a lot of emotional support.
  • The sniper. Unseen, unknown, but a major presence throughout.
  • And there are two more people, though it would be a plot-spoiler to say more.

The structure of Five Survive

The way in which Holly Jackson has structured the novel is important and interesting, as it becomes a major factor in the novel, lending it consistency and claustrophic tension. The author has observed the three principles of classical drama – Unity of Action, Unity of Place, and Unity of Time.

Everything that happens in the story takes place within eight hours and inside or just outside the RV. Very relevant facts about the past are revealed gradually in conversation or in Red’s inner thoughts. The narrative never goes into flashback. The reader’s attention is entirely focussed on this situation, this ticking clock, this RV stage.

High moments

The RV was going nowhere. And here they were, the six of them, trapped inside it, the wide-open nothing and the red dot waiting for them out there.

There are many high moments of tension, drama and terror. The main player, of course, is fear, mounting inevitably towards breaking point. Outside, somewhere in the darkness, is the enemy, who might well kill them all. But there is also an enemy within the RV: suspicion. Who holds the secret? Bonds of relationships slacken and tauten.

My thoughts on Five Survive

Five Survive (great title – a far cry from the comforting memories of Enid Blyton ‘Famous Five’ adventure stories!) is an exceptionally well-structured and controlled novel. Holly Jackson is a skilful writer who plays with her reader, laying false trails and dead ends and new traps. She has created a thrilling teaser and gripping page-turner, but she has also given us a story that is about moral choice and justice. 

What Holly Jackson says about Five Survive

‘Unlike the ‘Good Girl’ books,’ says Jackson, ‘which are based on cold cases, this is a very hot case and one that gets hotter by the minute.’

Her favourite thrillers are the ones that happen in real time, like Panic Room. Phone Booth, films where the action never lets up, and keeps you on your seat. Interestingly, she estimates that it takes an average reader eight hours to read one of her books, so she has set all the action in Five Alive to take place within that time frame, with no change of action or flashbacks to slow things down.

‘Then I needed a space constraint. I wanted it to feel really claustrophobic.’ For that reason, she chose the RV as a really confining no-escape space for the action.

About Holly Jackson

Holly Jackson

Holly Jackson was born in Buckingham, England, in December 1992, and has been a passionate storyteller and follower of crime fiction for most of her life. She wrote her first novel when she was 15. Her rise to success has been rapid. In 2019 her mystery thriller A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder hit the teen scene running, and she herself hasn’t paused for breath. She instantly became the excited talk of BookTok. Soon after, she published parts two and three of the series and a prequel novella.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder won the 2020 Book of the Year Award, and in 2023 won the TikTok best novel award. In February 2024 it opens as a BBC series, starring Emma Myers.

Interestingly, like Alex Aster with Lightlark, Holly Jackson found instant recognition through BookTok and BookTube, the young adult readers’ favourite channels.

An interview with Holly Jackson was published in the Guardian in March 2023.

Why crime fiction?

And why crime fiction? The adult reading world, as we know, is overwhelmed with detective stories, thrillers and murder mysteries in novels and television series. The popularity of the genre is rapidly spreading down the age readership from teens to middle grade and younger. For Holly Jackson, reading about murder stories has been a lifetime passion. More than fiction, her absorbing interest is in real-life crime. ‘My phone is full of podcasts of real-life murder stories,’ she says in her interview with The Independent (requires sign-up), ‘Murder is the thing’.

A brief summary of A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder

Cover of A Good Girl's Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

Published by Electric Monkey, 2019. Available from Amazon.

Pip, a studious high school girl decides that her final year project will be an investigation into the death five years previously of Andie Bell, a former student of the same school. Her body was never found, and her suspected murderer, her boyfriend Sal, allegedly killed himself. Pip doesn’t believe that Sal was the murderer, nor that he killed himself, and so she sets out to open up the case, interview all Andie’s friends and family, and unravel the truth.

Her research leads her to unexpected truths about Andie, and into dangerous and unsavoury avenues. She is helped by Ravi, Sal’s brother. Pip is completely obsessed by her project, to the point of neglecting her studies and university appliciation. Her parents are worried about her. When things get too difficult for her to cope with he supports and befriends her. Their relationship gradually develops into a gentle and pleasing romance.

And the forest in the dead of night was alive around her. Crackling twigs, wingbeats through the trees and screams. Fox or deer, she couldn’t tell, but they shrieked and cried but it was or wasn’t Andie Bell, screaming through the crust of time.

My thoughts on A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder

Montage of the covers of Holly Jackson’s A Good Girl's Guide to Murder trilogy plus prequel

I decided to read A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder (great title!) because my 15 year old Austrian granddaughter couldn’t put it down when she was recently staying with me. She told me that all her friends loved it, and that it was so exciting that ‘I was spinning through the last 20 pages’. And so I entered the underworld of today’s teenager.

The novel is exciting, intriguing and suspenseful. The characters are totally recognisable, almost all high school age, the language is fast-moving and contemporary. At the book’s centre is Pip, highly intelligent, likeable, not a participant in any of the wild excesses of many of her contemporaries, but intent on turning over every stone. And it’s a page-turner.

This is the world of teenagers, gossips, friendships, wild parties, drugs, suspicions, loyalties, betrayals. The novel is extremely well plotted. Just when you think you know what’s going to happen next, the author throws in a new unexpected turn or dead end. Suddenly you’re guessing again. It’s fast-paced and knowing, and most important of all, it never loses sight of the young adult characters and the readers.

The AGGGTM trilogy continues with Good Girl, Bad Blood and As Good as Dead. Book 4, Kill Joy is a prequel novella.

A new Holly Jackson book: The Reappearance of Rachel Price

And look out for Holly Jackson’s next book! The Reappearance of Rachel Price is ‘a new true crime-fuelled mystery thriller about a girl determined to uncover the shocking truth about her mother’s disappearance while filming a documentary on the unsolved case’, and will be published in hardback on 4 February 2024.

My thoughts on writing crime fiction

I’d love to know why the subject of crime fiction is so endlessly fascinating. Even I took pleasure in writing a short and rather gentle country murder mystery for YA readers, A Beautiful Place For a Murder. Why?

The attraction for the writer is the feeding in of clues and motives, red herrings and suspects, the plotting and devising of likely and unlikely suspects and letting them take a major or minor part. The crafty author opens doors and closes them again, and with cruel glee leads the reader into the certain knowledge that the mystery killer has been found – only to entirely deflate that possibility. And, above all, the final denouement must satisfy the reader. No tame excuse of a solution will be accepted.

For the reader, there’s the satisfaction of solving a puzzle, playing the sleuth, guessing and second-guessing. They will have a beginning, a middle and an end. Unless the book is a serial, they will know ‘who dun it’ by the last page. This rarely happens in real crime.

Why is the thriller so appealing?

Yet, none of this explains the magnetism of the thriller novel. I would like to hear a psychologist’s theory on why we as readers and writers are so captivated by this genre. My own theory is that the real fact of murder is too appalling and frightening for the human to accept. Death is a fact of life, but the intentional taking away of another person’s life, sometimes in an abhorrently brutal way, is almost too terrible to absorb. Yet murders are reported daily in the media. The only way to live with the knowledge of the fact of murder is to distance ourselves from the very real possibility of such a crime affecting our own lives in some way, and that’s achieved by making delicious ‘entertainment’ of it. Maybe?

Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her brand new novel for ages 10–14, The Haunted Hills, is out now, as is her novel for adults, Rose Doran Dreams. See the About me page for more information.

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