For a man whose successful criminal life has depended on evading his past, the sound of an incoming e-mail from an old associate is like shattering glass, particularly when it’s asking for a favor that will turn the next 48 hours into a stream of violent chaos. This intrusion kick-starts the dark trip of protagonist Jack Delton through Ghostman, an explosive debut crime thriller by 24-year-old recent Reed college alum Roger Hobbs.
Delton is the “ghostman” of the title, an off-the-grid fixer who survives through ingenuity and secrecy. The mess is the heist of an armored car—a disastrous massacre that litters an Atlantic City casino with bodies, kills one attacker, and wounds another. Over a million dollars in cash—intended to finance a drug deal and rigged with a government ink bomb set to blow in 48 hours—is unaccounted for. An old acquaintance of Delton exploits their complicated history to recruit the ghostman to retrieve the money before time runs out.
Hobbs populates this hell with the usual host of psychopaths, led by an especially demonic man called “The Wolf.” Delton must maneuver through physical dangers while simultaneously contending with the distraction of his own personal demons, forcing patience on the reader as the burning plot unfurls.
“There isn’t a proper name for what we do, but we used to call ourselves ghostmen....
Not all of it is disguises and fake passports and driver’s licenses and stolen birth certificates, either. Most of it is confidence.”
The release of Ghostman by a major book house feels like a grand publishing heist of its own. Hobbs sent off the final draft of the manuscript on the day of his graduation from Reed in 2011—and got not just a response, but a book deal. For someone so young, he is a master of detail, using elegant and often technical language to build tension. This talent shines when Delton encounters the Wolf, a menacing killer who seems to anticipate his every move: “Atlantic City is mine, Ghostman,” he tells Delton. “I know every ounce of marijuana and every thirteenth of methamphetamine that gets traded here. I knew about [your friends] for months. They talked to the same people I talked to. Spent money at my casinos. Had rooms in my apartment complexes. Parked their cars on my street corners.”
Unsurprisingly for a debut, there are some rough edges, too. Some of Hobbs’s language is cliché, and certain plot devices, like the excessive flashbacks, are distractingly cinematic. But on the whole, Ghostman is a gripping adrenaline rush, a dirty bomb of a crime thriller with a deceptive plot that confounds and stimulates characters and readers alike.