Ghostman, the debut crime novel from recent college grad Roger Hobbs, owes plenty to Lee Child. The Jack Reacher creator’s DNA is everywhere here, from the same narrative style to the quick-switches from crime thriller to action-packed Hollywood blockbuster. Child even gets a pull quote in the marketing, as we’d expect, just in case there were any doubt.
In this way it’s a novel that defies serious criticism because it never aspires to be anything more than what it is; a disposable crime thriller that entertains. I’m not sure if Hobbs’ has crafted a character on par with Child’s Jack Reacher, or even Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, but it’s a good enough start. That’s good news for readers as it means we’re actually getting two stories for the price of one, with Hobbes alternating between the present-day plot and a botched bank heist in Kuala Lumpur some five years back.
When a casino heist in Atlantic City goes down badly, killing one heister and leaving another mortally wounded and in possession of over a million bucks in a “federal payload” (money laced with an explosive device set to detonate in 48 hours) criminal jugmarker and onetime international mastermind Marcus tracks down an old freelancer – a ghostman – to repay his debt by locating the funds before the timer hits zero.
That would be Jack Delton, a ‘ghostman’ specializing in disappearing, costumes, and – when the need arises – dishing out some physical justice. Oh, and his name really isn’t Jack – it’s really an old alias he’d like to forget (see Kuala Lumpur). He’s a man who’s crazy paranoid about being located (yet seems surprisingly easy to find), doesn’t like to take chances (yet always seems to), and who really hates heroin. His mother died of a heroin overdose, we learn soon enough. If this sounds a bit random for a main character that’s because it probably is, as Hobbes’ bio says he studied “film noir, literary theory, and ancient languages” in college, and he puts all three to good use throughout his first novel.
Like many of Child’s Jack Reacher adventures Ghost Town is narrated almost entirely through Jack’s internal monologuing, describing scenes and event trajectories in methodical detail as if he were performing a literary autopsy. Hobbes is clearly having a ball forcing his characters through one silly and increasingly impossible scenario after the next, stretching the very bounds of reality with cliches and create-a-character templates. Experienced readers have read every bit and piece of this work before, but Hobbes still manages to keep things interesting and fresh with his rapid-fire style that blends phraseology against a backdrop that could stand a paintjob.
If this sounds harsh, it’s not meant to be, as these descriptions could apply to just about any other paperback thriller out there. Millions of people love these books – I love these books – and that Roger Hobbes is able to so easily hang with the best of them with his debut is pretty remarkable. Apart from his fascination with random violence (a word of warning: a young child is grotesquely murdered) and copious drug references there’s little here that would offend anyone who’s ever watche primetime TV.
My only real complaint is with how transparently Hobbes has crafted his hero. Jack, a mid-thirties criminal expert, comes off as a painful neophyte crafted entirely from cliches. His dialogue sounds like he’s reciting facts with little understanding of how or why they work the way they do and less like an experienced criminal who’s learned firsthand the ins and outs of his chosen field of work. I totally get that Jack is a pastiche from different sources, but the kitchen-sink approach doesn’t make him anymore endearing or interesting. Jack isn’t a character; he’s an amalgamation.
Take his hobby is translating ancient classics from Latin and Greek when he’s got a few minutes to spare, even crafting a tongue-twisting motto from this: “Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo” (if you can’t reach heaven, raise hell) – good luck getting that one to catch on. More silly is how often Jack transforms from subversive, risk-aware expert into an action superstar badass with little accounting for reality or plausibility. Here, Hobbes hard morphs his story and characters into a Michael Bay blockbuster, which is fun on a superficial level but leaves us without anyone or anything to root for or against.
We see him twice – yes twice – turn his back as vehicles theatrically explode behind him, translating Virgil’s Aeneid from Latin one moment, and uppercutting neo-Nazis the next. I literally kept imagining Hobbes pounding feverishly away at his keyboard with visions of his perfect hero/anti-hero dancing from his mind to his fingertips, thinking how cool it would be if his hero could do this, and that, and maybe this, etc.
Ghostman may be the literary equivalent of celery, but it’s tasty celery; an hors d’oeuvre worth snacking on between heavier works that will please genre fans looking for a tight, light thriller to pass the time. Fans of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher will probably enjoy this most of all as it gleefully apes much of that series’ explanatory narrative style and fast-paced action, though, sadly, little of its characters’ reflective attitude. There’s hardly a page that isn’t riddled with well-tread cliches or hot-blooded, testosterone-fueled machismo. That’s a good thing, as Ghostman is unabashedly good fun that’s exhaustively researched (one can almost hear the Wikipedia clicks), if not entirely lived in.