Sunday, September 13, 2015

NEW STUFF: Hollow Man - Mark Pryor

Hollow Man
by Mark Pryor
Seventh Street Books
ISBN: 978-1-63388-086-3
260 pp. $15.95
September 1, 2015

Dominic is not having a good day. First, he gets news that his parents who live in England both have died in a freak weather accident. Next, he learns he's being transferred from his prestigious high profile job in the Austin District Attorney's office to a lesser low paying job in the juvenile court. No more jury trials and too much paperwork. To cap it all off when he goes to his night time gig at a local music bar where he plays guitar and sings the owner cancels his performance pending an investigation into an accusation of "music theft." Another musician claims Dom has plagiarized his songs. Is Dom angry? You bet. And he's planning revenge to recoup his lost earnings and his musician's reputation.

Here's the twist. This lawyer/guitarist is a sociopath and he's done a very good job of keeping his secret hidden from his co-workers and friends. He glides through life mimicking the behavior of "empaths" --as he calls the rest of us normal human beings who have real emotions and a moral compass. While drowning his feigned sorrows at the bar with his friend and fellow lawyer/musician Gus they trade war stories in the Austin legal scene. Gus, an immigration lawyer, has been dealing with a local celebrity of sorts -- a former soccer star who's turned slum lord. He tells Dom and a woman Dom met in juvie court the man has bought a platoon of trailers and rented them out to poor immigrants. Every month he travels from trailer park to trailer park collecting their rent. In cash. The woman (who oddly remains unnamed throughout the entire book) remarks that it's an invitation to robbery. Everyone's wheels start spinning. Dom is eager to take advantage of this chance at easy money.

The book has been compared in the promotional materials to the Dexter series as both lead characters are self-aware of their behavioral problems and neurological rewiring. But I found it reminding me of Donald E. Westlake's tightly plotted caper novels.  In fact, Hollow Man has more in common with Parker than he does Dexter. The plot is about the robbery of the rent money and the expected complications when the simple plan does not go well. Dom is forced to recruit a few accomplices, one of whom is his Tristan, his anti-social roommate, a tech wiz/computer nerd who locks himself in his room each night. Personalities clash, fear and guilt take over -- but only for the accomplices. Dom has no real emotions to impede his scheming.

Literary mavens may recognize that the title and chapter headings are taken directly from T.S. Eliot's groundbreaking poem "The Hollow Men". Pryor's savvy allusion to that nihilistic work is a perfect complement to the action as we watch Dom attempt to regain his reputation, his comfortable life, all the while using anyone, and doing anything including taking life in order to get what he wants.

My only quibble with the book is that Dom is too self-aware, too hip and ironic for someone who is supposedly dead inside. For all his talk of being soulless Dom has real passion and does seems to show quite a bit of emotion though he claims it's all pretend. For the purposes of the story Pryor thinks he needs to convince us that Dom really is different. In using him as a first person narrator Pryor has Dom often go into tangential commentary about the psychological checklist known as the Hare PCL-R which includes a variety of questions that when answered and tabulated will reveal just how much a person is qualified to be labeled as a psychopath. It's glib and sarcastically presented, of course, but I think the story could have been told by showing Dom's behavior and dispensing with sarcastic explanations and hipster wit.

Pryor knows how to tell a story though. His plotting is clever, he even plants clues that may lead an assiduous reader to uncover the slyly laid out twists revealed in the final pages. Even with what I feel are narrative flaws Hollow Man is one of the more original twists on a caper novel and presents us with an anti-hero complex and fascinating enough to stand alongside Tom Ripley and Parker. Cool headed and aloof (but not quite soulless) Dom leads the reader through the "deliberate disguises" he must craft to survive a world that resembles "Death's twilight kingdom."  Though both Eliot's poem and the final chapter end with "not a bang but a whimper" rest assured that Pryor is once again being ironic.  Hollow Man is a firecracker of a crime novel with an explosively surprising climax.


  1. One of these days, someone is going to use the title for a Crr / Eliot mashup! Until then, this sounds like clever stuff, though I too am usually a bit critical of genius villains who seem to be so in control and so self aware, and then do terrible things anyway, which always strikes me as more plot-convenient than plausible - (at least, I hope so). Really like the sound of this though, thanks John - when it emerges on this side of the pond I shall make a beeline for it!

    1. I'll send you one of my free copies. The publisher sent me one, and then Random House, their distributor, sent me another! Happens every now and then.

    2. Only if I can send you something in return chum - I can't imagine I have a book you want. Maybe a movie?