NTN: Ghostman by Roger Hobbs

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There’s a new kid in town, crime fans, and his name is Roger Hobbs. Right out of the gate, his debut novel – the smart, high-octane thriller Ghostman – has already nabbed him the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association. It’s unusual for a debut novel to take such a prestigious prize.

Our narrator, the titular Ghostman, is a seasoned criminal whose specialty is making people vanish quickly after a heist. Part of his success depends on himself not existing. He’s never been caught, has no fingerprints, and is so off the grid that there are no official records that point to him. As he moves between identities and corresponding disguises, even the reader doesn’t know his real name. His encyclopedic knowledge of weapons, security systems, cars, and the myriad forms of criminal deception that lurk behind all civilised commerce make him a highly prized ghost.

When we catch up with his latest identity, Jack, he has just been given an offer he can’t refuse. Since he is so impossible to trace, he is duly surprised when a job invitation on his disposable phone finds him where he is holed up in an anonymous motel. A character of mysterious motives, Jack seems to accept the assignment more from boredom than anything else. We soon learn his job as fixer comes with some serious baggage. The offer comes from his former boss, who he owes big time due to a disastrously failed heist a few years back. Also, part of the package is the chance to work again with his mentor, the beautiful Angela.

It’s a given that a ghostman cannot trust anyone, or that trust comes in many shades. A casino heist in Atlantic City has gone horribly wrong and Jack is hired to sort it out and find the vanished payload – a bag of government bills scheduled to explode in 48 hours. And so the countdown begins, as he struggles to stay a step ahead of a drug kingpin with a murderous army of disposable thugs, a love interest in the FBI, and a former boss that he must free himself from. Frequent flashbacks describe his botched heist in Kuala Lumpur and flesh out his former colleagues in crime, bringing us up to the present score, as the ghostman accrues even more enemies while trying not to violate certain universal criminal codes of conduct.

The only thing more fun than a police procedural is the criminal chronicle, complete with Ocean’s Eleven-style asides on the science of the heist, the art of the getaway, the zen of the car chase, and all the street lingo that describes the life of crime. Ghostman is replete with suspense and action, and populated with mysterious masterminds, criminal savants, and nasty villains with modern minds who deal in death using medieval methods. When the ghostman is not negotiating with these colorful characters, he’s delivering pain to those who would stop him.

This is a brilliant first novel with compelling dialogue, intensely violent showdowns, and reads like a pocket primer on the criminal method, all with the genuine feel of fear and bullets. The only problem may be the main character himself. Jack, a career criminal, comes across incongruously as a young gun who just wants something interesting to happen, regardless of the price. Amid the general mayhem, the ghostman spends his leisure hours translating Ovid on a legal pad which relaxes and clears his mind. As Renaissance man-cum-criminal chameleon, Jack is not overly convincing, less so even than some of his supporting characters. He doesn’t really overcome his comic book dimensions, even with the few personal details that Hobbs leaks out about his character. For instance, a drug addict mother, an impressionable youth spent in Vegas, the brilliant undergrad years, and so on.

In the end, the credibility of the ghostman character hardly detracts from Ghostman the novel. It’s a thrill-a-second ride from start to finish that leaves us wondering what will come first, the movie version or the Ghostman sequel, both of which are highly anticipated.

Recommended for readers of high-stakes crime thrillers in the mould of Donald Westlake.


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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