Ghostman by Roger Hobbs
There has always been a fascination with the personalities of those who break the law. In part, this is because we have sneaking admiration for those with the confidence to take on the “system”. We revere Robin Hood because, as the leader of a guerilla force using forested lands as concealment, he was able to run a communist revolution against the King and his barons by forcibly redistributing the wealth of the nobility to the downtrodden peasants. We fear other criminals because they directly threaten us. So in cultural and political terms, we accept law-breaking when it achieves the justice we expect from our governmental organisations. We approve of extra-judicial or extra-legal methods when the aims of the law-breakers match our own needs. There’s then a grey area inhabited by individuals like Billy the Kid or John Dillinger who have achieved legendary status even though their behaviour was probably antisocial to the majority. Their notoriety elevates them from mere criminals to potential heroes. During Prohibition and the Great Depression, governments were having serious public relations problems, and the reputation of banks was even lower. Hence, the activities of bootleggers and bank robbers like Dillinger were like adventure stories, lifting the spirits of the common people and distracting them from the drudgery of their lives. For the bootleggers and bank robbers, of course, this celebrity status was ultimately self-serving. They were selling us rotten booze at inflated prices because we were hopeless alcohol addicts and they were stealing from the banks who’ve been stealing from us, the people. So it’s perfectly possible for violent offenders to avoid the classification of evil and become heroes, celebrated in all the media. Using the word in its widest sense, outlaws can be heroes. You only have to think of Batman and other vigilantes to see how we embrace the extra-legal when we think governments are failing us.
In crime fiction, we have Parker by Richard Stark (Donald E Westlake) as probably the most prolific of the criminals as (anti)hero. More recently, we’ve had a professional hitman as protagonist in Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo, the Good Thief series by Chris Ewan, and so on. In the last six months, the cinema has produced a slew of amoral films including Arbitrage in which our “hero” kills his mistress and makes millions out of fraud, Snitch in which a father commits multiple crimes to get his criminal son out of jail, Pain and Gain in which three incompetents kidnap and murder people, and so on. It seems the creative have decided now is the right time to bring us stories from the darker side of the moral spectrum.
All of which brings me to Ghostman by Roger Hobbs (Knopf, 2013) in which our protagonist is a seasoned criminal who has made a career out of robbery and, where necessary, murder. His true claim to fame within the criminal fraternity is his ability to blend in and disappear (like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, he lives completely off the grid). He’s the ultimately invisible man which gives him great flexibility to move around a city and achieve his aims. We start with him approached by a fixer he worked for five years ago when his misjudgment caused a big bank robbery to fail. He feels a sense of guilt and therefore agrees to help out to even the balance between them. This fixer has organised another robbery, this time at a casino, which has also gone very wrong. He needs our hero to pull the fat out of the fire. The intention had been to use the money from the casino to pay for drugs. Our hero is therefore to recover the stolen money and prevent the fixer’s late payment to the drug distributor from turning into a war. As introductory stories go, this is not unreasonable but, of course, nothing is quite what it seems.
During the course of the resulting story, our hero meets a whole range of people, only one of whom is explicitly on the side of “justice”. Everyone else is criminal to some degree, some quite violently and dangerously so. The navigation from start to finish against the clock is therefore fraught with difficulty as various people try to kill him and/or acquire the stolen money. So this book is not for everyone. There are descriptions of torture and varying degrees of violence. Since I insist on continuing to call him the hero, you will understand he’s actually out to get a result that matches his own ethical code. Although this need not have been the case, what he does is actually useful to local law enforcement agencies. That helps to sell him as a more acceptable “hero”. Indeed, I confess to finding the book a success despite the somewhat gratuitous Russian Roulette scene — I’m not wholly convinced he would go quite that far even though it’s a dangerous situation. The idea he’s a modern parallel of Aeneas is also interesting, i.e. that he’s being “saved” or saves himself so he can fulfill his destiny. But there’s a certain lack of coherence to the character and, despite all the fascinating detail, many of the plot elements are familiar. Against this I set the fact this is a first novel. Under the circumstances, I forgive the author. This is a genuinely great debut and I will be waiting to see where the next book takes him.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.