Do you ever get that frisson of hope when you start a book? I rarely get it, but I got it within a few pages of reading this debut crime novel. It got good, gooder, goodest as I read along and its promise had been fulfilled by the end. What's also extraordinary about the book is that Roger Hobbs was a junior in college on his summer break when he wrote most of this book. (And, no, he wasn't a 58-year-old freshman.)
Ghostman reads as though an expert in bank robbing, safe cracking, international banking, and the art of the con wrote this book, enough knowledge for several lifetimes. So Hobbs was, what, 21, 22 years old? No. Way.
I googled Hobbs and one of the first things to pop up was his "Modern Love" confessional essay that was a runner-up in a New York Times contest. Apparently he accepted his geekiness and refined the art of winning a modern-day Roxanne via writing. Now he has modified his method to romance a legion of readers.
We never learn what the main character's real name is. Most of the time he is called "Jack." He is a bank robber, a con artist, a master of disguise, a disappearing act. He is in his mid-thirties but can blithely assume the shape and articulation of older men. For fun and relaxation, he translates books from Latin. (A little Aeneid, anyone?) When we meet him, he is holed up in an unremarkable apartment, living an unremarkable life in Seattle. Then he gets a phone call that makes him face his past and endangers his future.
Ghostman tells the tale of two capers, one five years ago and the other a present-day casino robbery gone awry that Jack has been "hired" to fix. The common denominator is Marcus. He designed* the caper that blew up in Kuala Lumpur five years ago, and he is the man who has hired Jack to fix the current problem.
Jack has accepted responsibility for why the previous job failed -- and we don't find out why until much later -- so he has an obligation to assist Marcus in cleaning up the detritus from the new heist. One of the robbers is missing, along with the heist money. Unfortunately, the heist money has a bomb in it, so it and the robber need to be found now, if not sooner. There are a lot of dead bodies behind and in front of Jack.
Hobbs is the master of leaving one story hanging at an interesting point to pick up the other story. The details of the heists are intricate and clever. Jack is enigmatic and haunted.
For what it's worth in the store's waning days, I've given this an MBTB star.
* Hobbs uses insider's terms for the various people -- wheelman, ghostman, boxman, buttonman, controller, and jugmarker, which is what Marcus is -- involved in a caper, but I didn't want to stop to explain them, especially since Hobbs does it very well and you need to buy the book anyway.