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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Hollow Men by Rob McCarthy

Pegasus Books, 368 pages, $25.95

You may find yourself qualified to practice medicine after having read “The Hollow Men,” the debut novel by British author and medical student Rob McCarthy.

In the fashion of “CSI, et al.” and “Law and Order, et al.,” McCarthy gives you a massive amount of medical details. It sometimes slows his story down, but I can see it appealing to information junkies who like to know the how of forensics in crime novels.

Working backwards, let me now go to the particulars of the book. Dr. Harry Kent is an anesthesiologist by trade but pretty much seems to haunt the ER (or A&E, if you’re British). That’s because of his part-time role as a Force Medical Examiner, or police surgeon, a misnomer carried over from the old days and still informally used.

Kent first meets Solomon Idris, a seventeen-year-old ex-gang member who is waving a gun and holding people hostage in a fast-food eatery, in his police capacity. Solomon has a story to tell and demands to be heard by a reporter. Unfortunately, there is something medically wrong with him. He is feverish and has a severe cough. Harry is exchanged for several hostages so he can take a look at Solomon. When the police hear a shot, they assume Solomon has fired his gun. They rush in and a rookie on the siege team shoots Solomon. In fact, he has not fired his gun and is now bleeding to death, in addition to having pneumonia.

While Solomon is in a medically induced coma, someone deletes an allergy notation from Solomon’s record and this almost kills him. This piques Kent’s interest more and fuels his already loaded sense of outrage. He is attracted to lost soul cases, having appointed himself guardian angel to another long-term comatose patient whose identity is unknown. One more won’t hurt.

Teaming with another lost soul, DI Frances Noble, they try to determine what Solomon’s story was. Kent figures it has something to do with the death of Solomon’s girlfriend, who stood in front of an incoming train to commit suicide. That thread leads Kent and Noble into a dark world of other lost souls, society’s teenage throwaways.

Part of Kent’s emotional baggage is his relationship with another doctor, James Lahiri, who was his best mate in medical school and who served in Afghanistan with him as part of a medical corps. Lahiri saved his life in Afghanistan, but now they are estranged. That story and the slow reconciliation of their friendship are a moving part of the book. The reconciliation is strained when it appears that Lahiri may know something relevant to Solomon’s circumstances but doesn’t choose to share it.

Kent and Noble take a few steps forward and then a step back, as they try to sort out the relevant information from the extraneous.

While I enjoyed the book overall, there were moments when the pace seemed underwhelming. Kent’s moments of sudden rage were odd sometimes. So were Noble’s. I understand they were both victims of violence, of loss. Kent certainly had PTSD, including the nightmares, the moments of helpless rage, and the feeling of alienation from other people and ordinary situations. But the integration of Kent’s mental difficulties into the story might have been more developed. However, make no mistake,  this is a recommended read for the interesting plotline and the potential for future stories of Kent and Noble.

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