One knows practically from the beginning of THE HOLLOW MAN that London Detective Constable Nick Belsey is a screw-up. This wonderful debut novel by Oliver Harris begins with Belsey, on the morning following a rough night, learning that he has crashed --- and destroyed --- a squad car belonging to another cop shop. That’s an appropriate metaphor here, given that Belsey’s ship is pitching and yawing in a devastating storm of his own making. He is drinking far too much; his credit cards are maxed out and in arrears, and being canceled by the hour; he is a step away from sleeping rough, having been evicted from his apartment; and he is under investigation at work.
One of the few things that Belsey has going for him is the vocational equivalent of broken field running: he is one of the best detectives on the force, and his brilliant mind, if wasted on a daily basis, is honed for survival.
"THE HOLLOW MAN is one amazing tale, and Harris is a heck of a storyteller.... This is a strong entry from a debut author who promises to be a major talent."
So it is that Belsey answers a missing person call that just might provide the solution to all of his problems. The missing man is an extremely wealthy and reclusive Russian expatriate named Alexei Devereux. The housekeeper has reported Devereux missing; what Belsey initially finds is a suicide note in Devereux’s beautiful, opulent and deserted home, as well as the promise of access to more than enough wealth to get Belsey out of all of his financial difficulties and, better yet, out of London entirely.
Belsey almost immediately begins to step into Devereux’s identity while slowly but surely slipping out of his own. As he does so, however, he begins to discover that Devereux is not the ideal selection for the target of identity theft. It appears that Devereux was involved in a mysterious and secretive project, one involving heavy hitters who invested large and long and are now wondering about their return. Then, Devereux finds a body in a panic room in the house. The phone keeps ringing; he is being followed; a young woman is assassinated before his eyes; and people on all sides of the law are slowly becoming wise to him. Belsey is smarter than all of them and sneakier as well, but he is his own worst enemy, more dangerous to himself than any assassin could ever be. Without any allies, he makes a last-gasp bid to escape from his situation intact. The remaining question is whether he can escape the consequences of his own actions.
THE HOLLOW MAN is one amazing tale, and Harris is a heck of a storyteller. Belsey blunders into traps of his own circumstance and uses the same character defects that created them to escape them. If you want an anti-hero, you would be hard pressed to find one who meets the definition as well as Belsey does. He is a thief, a cad, and an opportunist, the literary descendant of Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley without the murderous intent. Ironically enough, it is on that rare occasion when Belsey acts nobly, and thus out of character, that he places himself in the greatest danger.
Watching Belsey jump across the ice floes as he pulls his life down around him provides a great deal of the book’s entertainment, but the underlying story, dealing with who Devereux is and what is really going on, is (almost) as equally entertaining. This is a strong entry from a debut author who promises to be a major talent.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 30, 2012