Ghostman by Roger Hobbs
Knopf, $24.95, Hardcover, 335 pp.
There’s a new kid on the crime scene…and kid is not far off the mark. Roger Hobbs wrote his first novel Ghostman during the summer between his junior and senior years at Reed College and had a publisher before graduation. Already in its fourth printing after a February launch, Ghostman is on its way to publication in fifteen translations.
What makes a routine heist novel, not far removed from the Ocean movie franchise, such a phenomenon? It’s all Hobbs. The kid has an ear for the jargon, an eye for a quick and dirty simile, and the inside skinny on how a criminal mind works.
He’s also a bit of a ghostman himself. His personal website (rogerhobbs.com) identifies his occupation as “criminal author” and notes he is an English major who studied ancient languages, film noir and literary theory. On Twitter (@rogerjhobbs), he marvels that he now has 404 followers –– “not a good sign” –– and muses about “one of those days where I kinda wanna blow up everything with a shotgun.”
He Makes Things Disappear
A “ghostman” is the guy in a big time robbery who makes the heist team disappear – go to ground until its safe to spend the take. Hobbs’ narrator is a professional ghostman. To some he is Jack Delton, but he quickly points out: “My name isn’t really Jack…It isn’t any of the names that appear on my driver’s licenses, and it isn’t on my passports or credit cards.”
And the price of his job is isolation. “There are maybe thirty people on earth who know I exist…I don’t have a phone number and I don’t get letters. I don’t have a bank account and I don’t have debts…Sending me an email is the only way to contact me…but when I start getting messages from people I don’t know…I microwave the hard drive, pack my things into a duffel and start all over.”
Paying His Debts
When he was just getting started, Jack botched a big score in Kuala Lumpur put together by the notorious and ruthless “jugmarker” (a mastermind who sets up the robbery) Marcus. Marcus has Jack’s email address and gives him a chance to make up for his Malaysian mistake…or eat a bullet. Not intimidated but also aware of his debt, Jack agrees to help Marcus with a big heist that’s now got problems.
This carefully planned Atlantic City score involved taking off an armored truck with a load of fresh shrink-wrapped bills headed for a casino. Marcus knows it is a “federal payload” with a 48-hour timer set to explode if the money doesn’t reach its destination. If the clock is not deactivated by special codes at the casino, a GPS signal triggers hidden ink bombs to find and identify those holding the loot.
Marcus planned to use the money for a big drug buy from The Wolf, leaving him holding the bag when it blew, but The Wolf has other ideas. He sets up a heist within a heist, but one of Marcus’s guys manages to escape with the money. The clock is ticking. If the money blows on Marcus’s man Ribbins, it’s game over. So Jack’s job is to find Ribbins and the “federal payload” – and get it to Wolf before the timer goes off.
A Team of All-Star Thugs
The Atlantic City heist gives Hobbs a chance to flex his writing chops with a prologue introducing the two losers that Marcus hired for the Atlantic City job. Hector Moreno and Jerome Ribbins are destined to become two of crime fiction’s all-star thugs. Ribbins, the “point man,” is a six foot four tatted up felon who “could bench press four hundred on a good day, and six hundred after a couple of lines of coke.” He packs an arsenal including “a fully automatic Kalashnikov, Type 56, with three mags of 120-grain, full-metal-jacket, boat-tail hunting rounds, thirty in each.”
Moreno is the ex-army sharpshooter and “wheelman” who “had a whole pharmacy in the Dodge with him, just to get his nut up. Pills and poppers and powders and smokes. He wanted to burn away his jitters with a fistful of speed…He finished a big bone of crystal meth with a slurp…He wanted to fix and focus, not get blown out of his mind on crank and paint thinner before the main event.”
Jazzed on adrenaline and drugs, they kill the armored truck guards and pack off the still shrink-wrapped federal payload when another shooter appears. He takes out Moreno and bloodies Ribbins bad before Ribbins kills him and gets away in the beat up ‘92 Dodge Spirit to hole up in his “scatter” – a personal hideout, usually in some no-questions-asked neighborhood or in a 24-hour storage unit with electric power and a porta-potty
Enter The Ghostman
Once Hobbs brings Jack into the story to “ghost” things for Marcus, the bodies begin to pile up. The feds get in the chase and cars appear when wanted––and blow up as needed. Hobbs is hell on car descriptions: a black Mercedes looks like “a shined-up paperweight.” Jack’s first wheelman drives a Shelby GT500 with “an engine as shined up as a wedding ring and coat of paint as fresh as an army recruit.” The Wolf’s black Suburban peeks out from behind a dumpster “like it was an elephant hiding behind a tree…the engine grille looked like snarling teeth with a Chevrolet logo stuck onto them.”
Two Crimes for the Price of One
If one down low story of a big score is good, two is even better. Hobbs is happy to oblige. While Jack is trying to clean up Marcus’s mess and keep The Wolf back from his door, Jack intermittently tells the story of his maiden Kuala Lumpur robbery five years earlier. That heist had its challenges as well: the target bank vault was on the 35th floor of a skyscraper dwarfed by the neighboring Petronas Towers. But the thieves came with a full team: the jugmarker Marcus, two butttonmen, a wheelman, a hi-tech safecracking boxman, a multi-lingual grifter, and the ghostman. Even Jack’s mentor Angela tagged along to show him the ropes. She was a former actress turned ghostman who taught him to transform his identity through make-up and voice manipulation. She also showed him how to melt off his fingerprints in a lightly oiled hot frying pan.
Despite her lessons and oversight, Jack gets made by an undercover cop at a gun buy. He takes him out with a “gutshot” not the more reliable “double-tap-to-the-head” so the cop survives and the crew is busted. Only Jack and Angela escape…and then disappear. Marcus not only loses the score, he loses his credibility as a jugmarker, and with it, his ability to assemble a top team for future robberies. Jack owes him big time.
The Clear Eyes of a Con Man
And so Hobbs tells his two heist stories through Jack’s clear eyes. The plot isn’t nearly as transfixing as Hobbs engaging way of telling it––and his surprisingly authentic detail. He reminds us that “trash bags and duct tape are criminal staples. Any worthwhile crime involves them…a body could fester in a trunk lined with trash bags for months before attracting attention.”
When caught without his handgun, Jack goes barehanded after one of The Wolf’s henchmen: “It was like punching a block of concrete. He was quarried out of solid prison and chiseled on the yard equipment by some sculptor who didn’t care much for what the finished piece would look like.”
A cocky Jack even belittles The Wolf’s business: “A drug buy is as simple as it sounds. One person brings the drugs. The other brings the cash. They trade….I did my first drug deal when I was fourteen. I put a nickel on the park bench, my dealer put a nickel sack in my lap and walked away…child’s play.”
After Hobbs ties off the loose ends, after all the bloodshed, after the debts are paid and vengeance exacted, we are left with that head-shaking smile that a smartly told story always provides. One of Jack’s wheelmen once asks:
“Jack isn’t your real name, is it?” one of his wheelmen asks.
“What’s a real name?” he replies.
Maybe that’s true of Roger Hobbs too. What little we know about him is that he’s a crime nerd who wrote a master’s thesis on Edgar Allen Poe, learned by trial and error to hot wire a car, and crawls the sub-level web chat rooms of criminals for trade secrets and weapons advice. But who cares how old he is or where he came from when he can tell a story as good as this one.