I am happy that I took a second look at GHOSTMAN. I initially thought that it was a supernatural thriller of some kind (I think I can be forgiven that from the title), but something about this debut novel by Roger Hobbs prompted me to check out the synopsis, which mentioned botched bank jobs, revenge, and blood and guts spilled all over South Jersey, and I thought, I’m there. I then began hearing lots of good things about the book from industry people and shoved aside a few activities --- like grocery shopping, check writing and sleep --- to sit down and read a few chapters.
The book velcroed itself to my hand before I had finished reading the first page and did not let go until the conclusion. Think of one of those barbed fish hooks that do more damage going out than going in. That’s GHOSTMAN, though it's damage you’ll love and yearn for from beginning to end.
"I have been reading mystery and thriller novels for over a half-century, and I thought at this point that I might be immune to accounts of this nature. I was wrong, and as a result, I am yearning for more of this character and from this author."
The “Ghostman” is a guy called Jack Delton (not his real name) who doesn’t really exist, in the sense that he doesn’t own property or have bank accounts, a driver’s license or valid picture identification. Jack instead is an extremely talented criminal who five years before the events occurring here made a costly mistake during a high-profile bank heist in Kuala Lumpur. The heist was blown as a result. Marcus, the criminal genius behind it all, lost his best people and is not the type to forgive costly errors. Since then, Jack has been moving, changing locales every six months (or more often, should the need dictate), simply because to be found means death.
When a casino heist in Atlantic City goes suddenly and dramatically south, Jack, while in Seattle, gets a call from Marcus, who shouldn’t know where Jack is or how to reach him. He shouldn’t even know that Jack is still alive. Marcus does know, however, and makes Jack an offer he can’t turn down: if Jack will go to Atlantic City and retrieve the heist money, which is in the wind and ready to (literally) explode, all will be forgiven between them.
In less time than it takes to tell it, Jack is on a private jet heading for Atlantic City, as an internal clock tick-tocks away. Jack quickly discovers that he is not the only person looking for the money. An Atlantic City criminal kingpin regards the casino robbery as an incursion into his territory and wants a pound of flesh extracted from Marcus; he is willing to use Jack to get it. An FBI agent on a fast career track is squeezing Jack any way she can, and in a couple of ways she probably shouldn’t. Jack isn’t interested, but literally everyone is trying to double-cross him.
While the action progresses in current-day Atlantic City, flashbacks concerning the failed Kuala Lumpur job reveal what went wrong and how, and demonstrate in real time the errors that Jack suffered for and learned from. He is caught in the crossfire between two very dangerous groups of people and can’t trust anyone. This is when Jack is at his most dangerous.
As I read this book, I couldn’t help thinking that Jack Delton has the potential to be the literary heir to Richard Stark’s brilliantly conceived and wonderfully executed Parker. This is not a conclusion to be made lightly, and time will tell if Hobbs will sustain the crackling energy that infuses the prose in succeeding installments of what appears to be a proposed series.
Let it be known, however, that it is not solely the Jack character that makes this book great. Rather than exploring the glitz of Atlantic City, Hobbs takes the reader on a back street tour that unwinds like a triptych of one of Bruce Springsteen’s earlier songs. The author also demonstrates, even at this early stage in his career, that he is a master of suspense. The account of the Kuala Lumpur bank heist, from initial planning to botched execution, ratchets the suspense gauge ever upward, at which point he tears off the dial and throws it out the window. At one point, I thought that I was going to have to crawl out of my skin just for relief.
I have been reading mystery and thriller novels for over a half-century, and thought that I might be immune to accounts of this nature. I was wrong, and am yearning for more of this character and from this author.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 1, 2013