Review: The Hollow Men by Rob McCarthy

The Hollow Men by Rob McCarthy follows police surgeon Harry Kent, who's determined to help those the world would rather brush aside, in a smart and electrifying new crime series that evokes the often-hidden medical world of the London Metropolitan Police.

As an army medic, Dr. Harry Kent has seen the effects of war and the damage they can do to personal and professional relationships. Determined to make a positive difference in the world despite his history, Kent serves as an emergency doctor and police surgeon for the London Metropolitan Police. He doesn’t sleep much. He’s managing. 

Enter teenager Solomon Idris.

Idris, a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, takes eight people hostage in a fast-food restaurant. His demands are simple: a lawyer and a BBC reporter. What he receives is Harry Kent—sent in by the MET to determine Idris’s health and mental stability. But in the middle of Kent’s evaluation, things go wrong. Shots are fired, and Idris is hit in the abdomen.

Kent and a team of dedicated surgeons manage to get him in stable-but-critical condition. Then a “mix-up” in meds threatens Idris’s life again. And the more Kent learns about Idris, the more he believes that someone is covering up something big—big enough to kill a teenage kid for.

The Hollow Men by medical student Rob McCarthy is a fascinating read. Part British police-procedural, part medical thriller, McCarthy has packed his debut with one beautifully described, tension-filled scene after another. His characters—particularly the main man Harry Kent—are sharp and incisive. And McCarthy has obviously studied his medicine. 

When we meet Harry Kent, we meet a man who is A) tired, B) capable, and C) brave. He’s just fallen asleep when the phone call beckoning him to intervene in a hostage negotiation wakes him. But he doesn’t complain; he doesn’t try to convince the police to call someone else in. He gets up, gets dressed, and shows up at the scene, which is controlled by Frankie Noble—a police officer who is very invested in her neighborhood and cares whether the job gets done right. Once on scene, Kent is sent into a Chicken Hut wearing a bullet proof vest and his wits: 

Harry looked around and buried an almost uncontrollable desire to burst out laughing. Here he was, less than an hour after waking up in an empty flat, the scaffold of his mind held up by speed, standing in a fried chicken shop with an armed teenager. A chill ran through him, despite all the layers he had on, and he saw that the hostages were all shivering too.

“Take off the vest.”

No sooner was the command out of Idris’s mouth than he collapsed into a fit of visceral coughing, his body jerking with every spasm.

Harry’s eyes moved down to the gun on the table. A pocket-sized revolver, one of the thousands of street guns that circulated around the city. It looked small-calibre, not one of the magnum varieties which could cut through Kevlar like it was paper. At this range, Harry’s vest would stop the bullet. 

Idris nodded at one of the hostages, the young girl with her parents. “Take it off, bruv, or I waste the girl.”

Her father let out a whimper, and Harry released the Velcro strap keeping the vest in place, sliding his arms out of the fleece and laying it and the vest on the ground. He decided that under no circumstances would he give the vest to Idris.

However, once Kent starts talking to Idris, he slowly comes round to the idea that someone, or several someones, may be threatening Idris enough to drive the teenager to commit this violent act. Just when he’s starting to get somewhere with the kid—including getting a few hostages released—shots are fired, and Idris is hit. 

It’s in the chaotic situation that follows where Kent really comes into his own as a character. Where an average man on the street would be a lousy narrative POV for a scene like this, Kent’s adds a sense of reason and calm. He prioritizes the pieces that need to be prioritized, bringing order both to the world of an active shooting and to the storytelling elements while taking the reader along step-by-step in an engaging and fascinating way. 

Then we get to the operating theatre. 

This is where McCarthy’s descriptions shine. Two of the possible pitfalls of medical thrillers are: too much information and information not presented clearly enough to follow the stakes of the situation. McCarthy manages to both explain the seriousness of the situation (so you always understand the threat posed to the character on the bed—in this case, Idris) and give the reader the correct amount of information without sounding lecture-y. 

Anesthetists were the experts at placing lines, and Traubert had the most experience of anyone in the room, but Harry immediately knelt down on the opposite side of the patient to his supervisor and began searching the other arm. Without a good IV line, there was no way to get blood into Idris, and it would keep leaking out of the hole in his abdomen, and he would die. It was as simple as that.

“I’ve got nothing here,” Harry said. All the veins in the usual places—the back of the hand, the inner surface of the elbow, the forearm—had collapsed. These are the moment you live for, Harry told himself. The moment you were trained to overcome. Get a neck vein, or a scalp one. Use the ultrasound machine to guide you in. Find a way, any way. In these moments the chaos in his head would eventually stop and he would know the right course of action in an instant. 

He knew. 

Luckily, Harry Kent isn’t only sharp in the operating theatre. After getting Idris stable, he thinks things are in the clear. Not so much. Someone changes Idris’s allergies on his medical chart, resulting in a dangerous, life-threatening reaction, which Kent barely manages to get under control. There are coincidences, and then there are coincidences. And when Kent digs deeper into Idris’s background, into his neighborhood, into his associates, he discovers that it may just be a doctor—someone much closer to home—with something to hide.

Rob McCarthy has created a particularly sharp and incisive medical thriller in The Hollow Men. As the first in a series, it will be exciting to see how Harry Kent develops over time as he engages in the medical, law enforcement, and social circles of London.


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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 MagazineShimmerSkive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.

Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.


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