I wanted The Hollow Man to be a space where I could explore what really excited me about crime writing and police investigation. I was fascinated with the detective mindset: isolated from mainstream society, unable to swallow its moral platitudes, having to approach each situation clinically; breaking the world down to significant details.
Yet I wanted clarity of sight that wasn’t just bleak or cynical but slightly awe struck. It would be cold, certainly, and unflinching, but also obsessively, irresponsibly curious. I felt perhaps this mentality would only become obvious if it was applied beyond the bounds of a routine police enquiry. So I thought about an opening scene. It had to be a situation in which a detective was thrown back purely on his own resources, confronted with the world as never before – not in a melodramatic sense, not in the midst of a war zone, just in the contemporary London that I knew. I saw a figure waking up with no wallet, keys or phone in the middle of Hampstead Heath, with only a crashed squad car to his name. And when I tried to think of a detective who would find himself in that situation – and have the skills and smarts to get out of it – I found Nick Belsey.
Belsey’s one of North London’s finest detectives but he is too enquiring, too restless, to sit easily in the job. He is also bankrupt to the point where escape seems the only solution.
I had toyed for a while with the idea of someone moving into a stranger’s house after the owner has gone missing. I liked the idea of a person shedding their life, and someone else putting it on. That seemed a Belsey thing to do. Then I started thinking about the mansions on The Bishops Avenue owned by billionaires and tycoons. What if it was one of those?
I grew up in Hampstead and for a long time thought the area would never make a good setting for a novel. But as I moved away, and came back less and less often, I was struck by both its beauty and the phenomenal wealth that the beauty represented. I had taken them for granted. Now their conjunction unsettled me.
The Hollow Man looks at the dark side of North London’s extremely rich: the rich who come from around the world seeking its charms and its business opportunities. I didn’t start with an intention to map London beyond that, but the nature of the investigation took Belsey from Canary Wharf one moment, to the backstreets of Elephant and Castle the next. Soon enough a bigger picture of the city was forming.
The Square Mile in particular had always fascinated me, and it was changing as I wrote. In 2008 it seemed that the extraordinarily brash world of finance might be gone forever. By 2010 it was clear that news of its death was premature. But like Hampstead it would never seem quite so solid again. That’s the London of The Hollow Man. Like Belsey, it needs to find new tricks, legal or illegal – and it needs them fast.
The Hollow Man is published by Jonathan Cape