You Review: The Hollow Man by Oliver Harris

Reviewed by David Swatling

Let’s ignore my compulsive Google search to track down origins of the term ‘urban thriller.’ It doesn’t matter whether it’s a reinvented sub-genre or a catchy cover tag. The Hollow Man by Oliver Harris is far and away the best debut crime fiction I’ve read in a long time, and I’ve read a lot recently.

Detective Nick Belsey wakes up in Hamstead Heath hung-over, homeless and broke. He might have crashed a police vehicle. He might lose his job. But he might just find a way out of his many problems with a missing person case. Belsey is a classic outsider. He’s got an edginess that may not appeal to everyone. But I like investigators with a mean streak, willing to take dangerous risks.

“The city itself looked numb as a rough sleeper…” It is London that puts the urban in this noir thriller. Harris navigates her shadowy streets and bars as adeptly as Raymond Chandler basked in the Los Angeles sunshine. The authors also share a sharp ear for dialogue and a style that mixes hard-boiled prose with surprising elegance.

The story builds in momentum as twists mount like a pile-up on an icy highway. To his credit, Harris juggles the complexities of high finance wheeling and dealing with clarity. He also has a special knack for literary economy when it comes to describing his large cast. Of one character, he simply states: “He looked like someone who hadn’t had their benzodiazepines today.”

Chandler, in his 1950 essay The Simple Art of Murder, wrote: “A world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities… It is not a fragrant world, but it is the world you live in.” Oliver Harris gives us an insider’s look into such a world, which sadly hasn’t changed all that much. But happily for crime fiction, he has put Nick Belsey on the case – and I hope with more to follow.

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