• Books
  • Sunday, 31 Mar 2013

Author : Roger Hobbs

Genre : Thriller

Publisher : Doubleday

ONE of the most distinct trends in the fiction and films of the last few years has been a change in the character and role of the hero. Long gone are the days when differentiation between the goodies and the baddies was clear.

Sometimes, this took bizarre forms: I can distinctly remember in my childhood watching movies and TV programmes in which it was pretty evident that anyone with a moustache was going to turn out badly and all the clean shaven guys were on the side of the angels. But the John Wayne Western was quietly dying long before Clint Eastwood made Unforgiven and it has not recovered since. No longer does the US cavalry come riding over the hill to save the day. As time has passed, protagonists in film and in crime fiction have become more complex, more morally ambiguous and more flawed. Many would say more realistic. These days even the good guys shoot the wrong people, get caught up in dodgy deals, and generally behave badly.

Prepare in Ghostman, then, for this trend to be pushed one stage further. For Ghostman is an out and out criminal from the start: “I have been an armed robber for close to twenty years”. As his name suggests, he is the man who makes things disappear after a robbery while remaining invisible himself. “I live alone. I sleep alone, I eat alone. I trust no one”. Ghostman does not have one name, he has many names. He has no bank accounts and no phone numbers. He uses a series of credit cards attached to different organisations and an e-mail address that changes constantly. Mobile phones are used once and thrown away. Ghostman lives under the radar of modern American society. He is, he assures us, very good at what he does.

Much of his skill in the field is due to his mastery of disguise. An adjustment of hair style and colour, a change of voice and a modification of his movements cause a complete transformation, something he says that “has always been the easiest thing in the world for me”. “Jack”, as we know him, simply becomes somebody else, and if that persona is threatened he has other possibilities, complete with fake birth certificates, passports, college diplomas and life histories.

Ghostman is not the name of an individual but a description of a role. As are jugmarker, lip man, boxman, bagman, wheelman and button man. These are the men you need for a successful heist. They are specialists with specific functions. When the book opens, Ghostman is called to clear up the aftermath of a heist gone wrong. The intention was to steal money being delivered to a casino by armoured truck. But it all spun out of control when another shooter became involved, people died, and the money went missing. It is up to Ghostman to find it before the concealed explosives in the US Federal Reserve stack of notes are activated. This means a race against the clock as well as against the opposition.

Ghostman is an almost embarrassingly accomplished thriller for a writer who is only 24 years old. Roger Hobbs completed the first draft of the book while he was still a senior at Reed College and it has already attracted offers from the film industry. It is not difficult to see why. Ghostman has all the ingredients of a classic noir thriller – violence, car chases, double-dealing – and Hobbs writes with a visual pen.

And somehow, he avoids the obvious danger in having an unsympathetic protagonist. There is nothing remotely attractive about Ghostman himself, save for his intense dislike of those who are clearly worse than he is and for one or two moments of compassion late on that suggest the merest whiff of a conscience. But because he is so, well, ghostlike, there is no strong personality to react against, simply a fascination with the twilight world he inhabits.

Hobbs creates this so convincingly that the reader is likely to wonder just how he gained his knowledge of it. I take this as a tribute to his research and imagination, not to a past life of criminality! But the tone is sometimes unnerving. We are only a few lines into the book before he tells us authoritatively, “There are three good ways to rob a casino...” before providing details of the first two and dismissing them and concluding that the only way that now works is to hit an armoured truck transaction while the guards take the money from the truck to the building – a 60 second window. “This is the golden minute of professional heisting.”

What happens to Ghostman in a job that sees him tangle with some of the nastiest men in the business is something you will have to read the book to find out. And as the one error he admits to in his past is made in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian readers will have an additional pleasure in working out the venues and looking for possible infelicities. That is an added bonus, though: chances are you will simply be swept along by a fast paced narrative and lost in the dark, dark world of criminality that Hobbs evokes so very disturbingly well.

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