Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Roger Hobbs: Ghostman

Ghostman reportedly sold on the strength of its pitch and the second rewrite of its first 50 pages. When the author was something like 22 years old. 

I'd tried out the online sample a few months ago when the Guardian first reviewed it, and thought it was OK, but not a priority; they flagged it again in their end of the year roundup, and when I realised that I could still remember that opening chapter, I thought Hobbs must have been doing something right, and decided to read the rest of it. 

If you look at Ghostman as a book, it's not that great. If you look at it as first book by a guy just out of college, it's a hell of a lot better than it has any right to be. It's daft, but it's a daft in a way which feels built on a lot more experience than anyone that age has a right to have. It reads like the work of an older person, albeit an older person who has not done the growing up they should have done.

It never quite lives up to its opening, which is much tighter than anything which comes after it. Hobbs might be better with third person narrative about people he doesn't really like than he is with first person narrative from someone he clearly thinks is supposed to be kind of cool. Or it might just be that he'd worked on that until it was as good as it could be, and then didn't get the time to do the same amount of work on what came next.

Ghostman is a particular kind of manly book, the kind in which the action is punctuated by asides which explain the action, almost as though it's a how-to book where the worked examples have overrun their assigned length and not left enough room for the technique. It's a book about things more than it's about people, about men and tools far more than it's about women and emotions. It's dick-lit, if you like. And it's like that from the off, as an armoured car robbery is narrated with constant asides about the technical problems which two near-morons are about to overcome using the power of not giving a crap if they have to kill everyone to get what they want. 

So the only way to look at it is in its own terms; is it a good example of the kind of thing it's trying to be? Hmmm. It's fast; it's designed that way, with the narrator running against a constantly ticking clock; he only has an arbitrary 48 hours to find the money from the opening robbery before it self destructs. The plotting is all over the place; the ghostman is navigating the space between two alleged criminal masterminds who are using the money as a pawn in a deeper game, but the more we hear about the plots and the deeper game, the more the criminal master minds sound like idiots. It doesn't make any sense that a crime lord in Seattle would be trying to clobber a crime lord in Atlantic City, and it makes even less sense that they'd be using such complicated schemes to do it. I'd have thought that "money blows up in 48 hours" would have been more than enough plot for one guy trying to find something in Atlantic City (it would certainly have been enough for Parker), but Hobbs chucks in all kinds of machinations. And as if that weren't enough, he gives us a flashback to another botched robbery which was some kind of formative experience for the ghostman. And it's a perfectly cool story, bro, but it would have been just as good as a book on its own; there's nothing in it which illuminates the action in the foreground or really tells us anything we need to know about the characters. 

Over on the toys for boys side of things, Hobbs is working on the tried and trusted "talk fast and no-one will have time for questions" model, building up the texture of his criminal underworld with little asides and descriptions of jobs and techniques which sound plausible even when they're slightly wrong (Hobbs is reassuringly not great about the practical side of firearms, getting the names of parts wrong and being more than a little fuzzy about how they all fit together, though he gets points for appreciating what silencers really do).

The central conceit is the ghostman himself, a hitherto unknown criminal specialism which is like Face from the A-Team without the happy-go-lucky charm. He flits through the underworld, untraceable and unfindable, doing whatever suits him. It's a great idea for a character, even though it doesn't make a button of sense; criminal organisations are held together by personal loyalty and reputation, and a freelance middleman who no-one can find and who never looks the same way twice would never be able to build up enough of either to get any work, let alone name his own price from the real criminal heavyweights. But Hobbs talks fast enough that it's only after the fact that the contradictions start to bug you. While you're reading, what bothers you about the character is trying to figure out how he got into that kind of criminal life; he's a nerdy kid who reads a lot, then he mugs a guy, then he gets adopted for some reason by another master criminal who teaches him everything he knows. That kind of thing can be made to work on the page, but Hobbs doesn't pull that off in the way that someone like Thomas Perry got me to buy into the Butcher Boy's back-story.

Which brings me to my take away, I think. Hobbs has done a pretty good job for his age and experience, but if you want to see this kind of thing done right, Thomas Perry and Richard Stark remain the guys to beat.

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