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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Vanishing Games by Roger Hobbs

Knopf, 304 pages, $25.95

I don’t know how Roger Hobbs does it. From the very first page, he is able to hit his readers with fast-paced action, technical legerdemain, and a gripping plot. He even addresses the little things that drive me batty sometimes in books.

Before I talk about the rest of the book, let me explain what I mean by that last sentence. If I notice it, it bothers me if characters miss out on what real people would do. I recently read Sue Grafton’s “X,” and her stalwart P.I., Kinsey Millhone, had to uncomfortably deal with the lack of bathroom facilities while on a stakeout. It didn’t have anything to do with the plot, but it lent a painful authenticity to Kinsey’s character. No matter how farfetched the plot gets, if a character is human, you have got to take that into account. Jordan Foster, an editor at “The Life Sentence”, mentioned a “Wired” article about the latest season of “True Detective” and how characters would travel long distances (between actual places in California) in impossibly short times. That bothered her. That bothers me. Internal consistency.

At one point, “Jack” (Hobbs’ ghostman from “Ghostman,” his first book) gets dunked in a sewage-filled ocean, is run ragged while getting away from bad(der) guys, and suffers slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to the extent that he is dripping and oozing blood. He merely changes clothes and keeps going for several more chapters. I thought to myself, eww, he must smell really bad and have a wide personal zone in crowds, making it easy for a sniper to get him. I fretted about how unreal (hah!) that little piece of the narrative appeared. But I should have trusted the author more. Eventually Jack connects with a shower, while acknowledging his fundamental odiferous nature. Everything was all better for me and I could continue to read. The fact that Jack eventually cleans himself up speaks to the meticulous way Hobbs crafts the world his characters inhabit.

In “Vanishing Games,” the world consists mostly of Macau, the incongruous high-flying, big-stakes gambling mecca for the rich of China and beyond. To be sure, there’s a seedy side to Macau. (And an even seedier side.) The poor inhabitants co-exist with the rich tourists on this geographical appendage to mainland China.

After not having heard from her for six years, Angela, Jack’s mentor. friend, and fellow con artist, surfaces and contacts him. Jack has missed her terribly. She is one of the few people capable of assuaging his loneliness. It’s not easy being no one and everyone, as the criminal term “ghostman” signifies. A ghost is someone who can assume different identities and can craft them for others as well, a necessary job for someone working in a criminal crew that needs to disappear after a job.

Angela is in trouble. An attempt to swindle the swindlers has backfired big time. She put together a crew to pirate away some sapphires from a ship of smugglers in the waters near Hong Kong and Macau. Somehow a stranger has found out about Angela’s scheme and wants what’s his. Since he already has the sapphires, Angela has no idea what he really wants. She just knows, after she receives a box containing the head of her last crew member, that she needs help, and Jack is whose help she needs to pull off the ultimate con game.

When Roger Hobbs appeared at MBTB a few years ago after “Ghostman” hit the market, I had a chance to ask him a bunch of nosy questions. It was then I learned that some of his “facts” were made up. Fabricated. Out of thin air, whole cloth, nada. He made it sound so authentic. I’m sure some of the stuff in “Vanishing Games” is of the same ilk, but it doesn’t matter. It sounds good.

“Vanishing Games” is every bit as nervy, compelling, and dramatic as “Ghostman” was. With the addition of the mysterious Angela, mentioned several times in “Ghostman” but never seen except in flashbacks, it becomes even more intriguing.

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