Hidden Harm by Ben Byrne - Synopsis

Tom Collins is a forensic social worker, this means he works with what he calls “the top end of the mad, sad and bad”; specifically his job is to protect their children and to keep other people’s children safe from them.

The novel starts with Collins braced for the prospect of facing into the dispiriting residence of the Chilcott family. This is a home where he knows that four children are being raised by their sociopathic father, Alex Chilcott, and down-trodden mother Carol Chilcott. His first visit to the family complete, Collins embarks upon his campaign to free the Chilcotts’ children from their damaging parents and stultifying home. To get to the bottom of the children’s experience Collins focuses on the eldest, the fourteen year old son Daniel Chilcott, who is a selective mute. Against a backdrop of escalating violence in the home and concerns about Alex Chilcott’s predatory sex offending on the Gartside estate, Collins attempts to establish a relationship with Daniel, which might expose the crimes of his father.

Collins is frustrated that his bosses do not share his level of concern for the Chilcott children’s welfare and he wonders about their complicity in their ongoing harm. The situation becomes more acute when Collins is suspended from work following allegations made in an anonymous letter. He faces the prospect of having to watch from the sidelines as Alex Chilcott’s offending at home and on the Gartside reaches a crescendo. He concludes that his duty to the Chilcott children and the people on the estate over-rides the instructions of his employers and he sets about trying to resolve the investigation while suspended from work. To do this he enlists the support of his police officer colleague Tara Sharma and a still-recovering ex-client Damon Hartley. Between them they uncover critical information regarding Alex Chilcott’s offending and set up a showdown in which Tara visits the Chilcott home in order to obtain the letter from the abused wife Carol Chilcott which catalogues her husband’s offending.

Tom Collins has been warned by his bosses and by Tara to stay away from the Gartside and from the Chilcotts but cannot stop himself from going to watch-over the house as Tara enters to get the letter from Carol. Collins realises that the handover has been foiled by Alex Chilcott and tries to force his way in. He ends up being taken hostage with Tara and it falls to the wife and son, Carol and Daniel, to come to their aid and confront Alex. With the rescue successfully completed and Alex Chilcott facing a very lengthy prison sentence the family have a chance to rebuild their life.

While Alex Chilcott’s abuse provides the novel’s central plot this is interwoven throughout with sub-plots which focus on the origin of the anonymous letter and Collins’ fractured relationship with his son Jamie and fractious relationship with Janet, the wife he left two years earlier. With the Chilcott investigation concluded Collins needs to resolve the origins of the anonymous letter that has led to his suspension. In the novel’s final twist he confronts his ex-wife accusing her of manufacturing the letter only for Jamie to reveal he was its author.

The novel concludes on a hopeful note. The Chilcott’s home is transformed in the absence of the malevolent Alex Chilcott and there is the real prospect of mother and children flourishing. In addition Tara Sharma hints to Collins that there may be the chance that they will enjoy more than just a fruitful professional partnership and he is unexpectedly given hope by his son Jamie that they can rebuild their relationship.