For a man who can change his appearance and personality almost by force of will, the unnamed protagonist of Roger Hobbs’s skillful debut novel is both memorable and an engaging narrator. The Ghostman – if he has a real name, it’s not one he cares to share – is not a man you can find easily. And even if you find him, that’s no guarantee he’ll want to do business with you.
Without giving away his secrets, Hobbs still manages to give us a fully-fleshed-out narrator whose identity is dependent as much on what he omits as what he chooses to reveal. That makes the few nuggets of information he offers all the more intriguing – a self-taught Classicist, he translates Latin to relax – a hobby at odds with his apparently blue collar background. But the Ghostman is no erudite villain like Moriarty, no gentleman thief like Raffles. He is brilliant, analytical, and something of a former prodigy when it comes to organised crime – a James Bond for the other side without the arrogance and thuggery, charming when he wants to be, ruthless when he has to be and a cipher the rest of the time. But there’s a clumsy emotional naiveté beneath the mental gymnastics, and his Achilles heel is, of course, a woman: in this case, his former mentor, whose whereabouts are unknown. Given that he learnt his chameleon ways from her, I suspected – and am still not entirely convinced otherwise – that one particular female character was simply another of her covers. Either way, the reader is primed for her return in what promises to be a gripping and enjoyable series.
Hobbs shows a restraint in his writing that his contemporaries in the thriller genre would do well to take note of. His language is sparse, measured, no glorying in pulpy purple prose designed to get the reader’s heart racing – he’s confident in his own ability to lure the reader in gradually, before issuing the sucker punch. This is Raymond Chandler, not Andy McNab.
Ghostman’s narrator might end the book by doing what he does best and disappearing, but Hobbs is likely to be a fixture in the thriller scene for a long time to come.