Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
Harry Kent is an anaesthetist at a London hospital, at the same time moonlighting as police surgeon with the Metropolitan Police [‘The Met’]. A youngish man, aged by the horrors of service in Afghanistan, now subject to the rigours of a registrar’s rota and not yet recovered from recent wounds, he’s running on aspirin and speed.
Exhausted after a punishing shift he’s summoned to a crime scene where a disturbed youth, Solomon Idris, has walked into a chicken takeaway to hold the occupants hostage at the point of a gun. When Harry is persuaded to negotiate he finds the situation further complicated by Solomon’s critical physical condition. Despite this a fragile bond evolves only to be shattered by catastrophe. Shot and losing blood, Solomon ends up in a hospital Accident and Emergency Department.
This is a hospital drama with input from the police. The crime is child abuse, the background apparently familiar but cleverly skewed, the characters fitting their roles. The key figures are Harry’s best friend, a fellow doctor who saved his life in Afghanistan but whom he hasn’t spoken to for a year, and Tammas, their CO in Helmand, father figure and quadriplegic, surviving on a ventilator. Others, police personalities and hospital staff, are over-shadowed by these veterans except for Frankie Noble, police widow and DI: fierce, arrogant and dedicated to the job: a woman who, like Harry, can work on intuition and – occasionally and disastrously – on impulse. And there are the villains: depraved and unheralded (except for the insidious clue).
The plot is simple. Solomon Idris can expose a crime and has to be silenced. In trying to protect him and trace a killer, Harry and Noble, volatile collaborators, are themselves targeted as they move closer to uncovering a deep-rooted and horrible conspiracy.
The Hollow Men is about people who are emotional shells. As Tammas, the wounded veteran says, there is a void inside everyone and that void has to be filled. If Harry and his kind do so through altruism they appear to be over-compensating for the sins of others. It’s a grand theme but this story can be read as a straight thriller: flawed heroes versus monsters. It’s a young man’s book: passionate, indiscreet, voluble, and on any level a brilliant debut novel.