When I picked up Oliver Harris's début novel, The Hollow Man, I wasn't sure what to expect. It's subtitled as "an urban thriller" and the blurb on the back of the book describes it as "a deadly love letter to London's shadow world". So I was expecting a crime novel, probably dealing with the East End criminal underworld and gangs.
But the title must be more than coincidental, surely echoing other works of the same name - maybe Dan Simmons' 1992 sci-fi novel in which people can pick up on other people's identities and thoughts. Or indeed John Dickson Carr's work of the same name - a locked-room mystery written in the thirties - subtitled The Three Coffins, which could also be a subtle link to Oliver Harris's book. Or maybe it is a throwback to the film, also entitled The Hollow Man, based on H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man. They could all be seen to share very tenuous links with the plot of this new novel. Or maybe not and I'm totally barking up the wrong tree.
There are an awful lot of "maybes" in that last paragraph, and that basically sums up my impressions after reading the novel. The story opens on Hampstead Heath. Detective Nick Belsey wakes up in the dewy grass, with a pounding headache and only a vague recollection of last night's alcohol-fuelled escapades, probably involving crashing a squad car and getting up to no good with the boss's wife. Add to this the fact that he's up to his eyes in debt and about to lose his job and things aren't looking good.
When a missing person report comes in on London's most prestigious and expensive street, Belsey snatches up the chance to take on this newly vacated lifestyle and home. He uncovers a whole lot more than he bargained for as he pokes around in the home and identity of the ultra-wealthy Russian oligarch and as people start being methodically gunned down by a mystery sniper, Belsey realises he's just got himself into a whole lot more trouble.
The problem was, I couldn't work out whether to condemn him as just another bent cop, feel sorry for him as a man down on his luck or be impressed by the intricate scam he sets up. I felt his character wasn't developed enough for me to really care what happened to him, and as this is the start of a series of novels, that has to be a bad thing. It's the same for the supporting cast of minor characters - they are so wishy-washy and flimsy that I didn't care about any of them really or get even close to understanding their identities and motivations, so much of the drama fell flat.
The blurb describes the book as "furiously paced and thrillingly plotted" and, while this is undoubtedly true in the final chapters, I felt that the first half was a bit slow. I often had the sense of going around in circles without ever getting any closer to understanding what was really going on or who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.
I closed the novel with still no real idea of who Nick Belsey is, as if I'd jumped into the second or third book in a series having missed a lot of background information. Hopefully, the sequel(s) will rectify the situation because Nick Belsey does have the potential to be a really interesting anti-hero.
star rating : 4/5
RRP : £12.99
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (5 May 2011)
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