Roger Hobbs knows that his parents and sister are proud of him. He’s just not completely certain they’ll read his edge-of-the-seat detective thriller Ghostman, published this month with much fanfare—and a movie deal—less than two years after he graduated from college.
“It’s not their kind of book,” says the 24-year-old Hobbs, who has the face of a cherub and enunciates his words with precision. “It’s got far too much graphic violence for them.” His mother, he says, acknowledging the irony, is a professor of communications who has spent much of her career studying how media violence affects children.
In middle school, while he and his family were in Italy, Hobbs encountered The Da Vinci Code. It was his first experience reading a thriller. He remembers thinking, “I could do something like this.”
He began writing each and every day—science fiction at first—on his 12th birthday, when he was given a computer and word-processing software.
“But I didn’t really stumble upon my genre until I was in an independent bookstore and came across a copy of The Monkey’s Raincoat by Robert Crais, which grabbed me and thrilled me. It was an old-school detective novel, with a classic detective voice, an incredibly engaging, incredibly addictive voice, a character that just spoke to me. Literally. And I thought, I want to create characters that speak to people, where the voice drives the narrative.”
So Hobbs became a student of the genre. Literally. For his year-long senior thesis project at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, he examined the ideas of two French literary theorists. But “even though the paper was about these very high academic concepts, I used as an example the mystery novel. I wanted to explore from a theoretical level what it is that creates suspense.”
The enigmatic hero of Hobbs' thriller has a distinctive voice, a passion for translating Latin and no fixed identity.
About a year before that—between his sophomore and junior years—Hobbs determined to write a heist novel, the story that would eventually become Ghostman. To prepare, he “read maybe 100 crime novels and watched maybe 100 heist movies, and I wrote down every scene on an index card so I could see in front of me on my wall what a heist novel looks like at its base level.” Ninety-nine percent perspiration combined with one percent inspiration when sometime later Hobbs envisioned “a medium-built man in a pale suit driving a Chrysler 300 really, really fast at night, talking on a cell phone. When he’s done with the conversation he takes the cell phone, crushes it, and throws it out the window.”
Out of that primal image—and the coolly deliberate research behind it—both the Ghostman character and Ghostman the thriller were born. Knopf made a pre-emptive offer for the book, with noted editor Gary Fisketjon (who has edited the work of Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, among many others) handling the project. Foreign rights have been sold in 16 countries, and Warner Bros. has acquired film rights.
Hobbs’ thriller has more twists and turns than a 10-yard-long corkscrew. It opens with an early-morning attack on an armored car delivering money to an Atlantic City casino. Things go terribly wrong when the carefully planned heist turns into a scene of epic carnage. What happened and why? Most importantly, where is the bundle of money with an explosive timer buried inside set to go off in 48 hours? In Seattle, Marcus, the organizer of the heist, wants some answers and, of course, his money. He turns to a guy who made a mistake on a job in Kuala Lumpur and owes him something in return for that fatal error.
Enter the Ghostman, sometimes called Jack, a character with a distinctive voice, a passion for translating Latin in his spare time and no fixed or permanent identity: the antihero as detective.
“Ghostman is what the mystery novel would look like if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had decided that Moriarty was his central character,” Hobbs says, then adds: “The central conceit of the Ghostman is the psychological, spiritual and emotional fallout of having no identity. I know for me, societal feedback is absolutely necessary for shaping my sense of identity. But here’s a man with no identity. What does he think about himself? What does he know about himself?”
These are questions that percolate well beneath the hard-edged surface of Ghostman. What will rivet and impress a reader is the level of credible procedural detail in Hobbs’ inaugural outing. You’ve heard of police procedurals? Ghostman is a crime procedural.
Hobbs grew up in Massachusetts and went to high school near Philadelphia (where he developed the habit of wearing a suit and tie every day because he found it was “a lot harder for an adult not to[Sat Dec 7 00:14:52 2013] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. take me seriously when I dressed like that”). He composed the first draft of the novel over three months between his junior and senior years of college in “an incredibly crowded second-floor coffee shop in Borders in center city Philadelphia.”
He walked the streets of Atlantic City to scout locations. He snuck into an armored car depot near his house in Portland to discover telling details. He conducted research on the “deep web,” the encrypted, unindexed part of the Internet where anonymous drug users “talk about their shared fandom of drugs.” And he occasionally drove up to Seattle and “sat in bars and traded cigarettes for stories about certain methods of criminality. You’d be amazed what people will tell you for a cigarette.”
Hobbs sent his agent the manuscript of Ghostman on the day he graduated from Reed in 2011. He says he is now about midway through writing a second Ghostman novel. “What I want with the Ghostman series is not to write the same book over and over again,” he says. “Instead I want to create a series of books that fit together like puzzle pieces. So I’m creating one mystery, one story, one question that is raised in the first book that I will answer over the course of five more books.”
And with that, Hobbs’ career and his unforgettable character are born.Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
Is there anything more nerve-racking than publishing a first novel? For authors and publishers alike, it’s a nail-biting moment of sink or swim. Here are 10 debuts from the year (so far!) that signal the start of promising careers.
THE HOUSE GIRL
By Tara Conklin
For fans of: Tracy Chevalier, Kathryn Stockett, Geraldine Brooks
First line: “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.”
About the book: The stories of a runaway slave and a modern-day lawyer intersect in a quiet, emotional and thought-provoking tale.
About the author: Conklin worked as a corporate lawyer before moving to Seattle with her husband and children to write this novel.
Read more: Interview from our February issue.
By Roger Hobbs
For fans of: Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Dan Brown
First line: “Hector Moreno and Jerome Ribbons sat in the car on the ground level of the Atlantic Regency Hotel Casino parking garage, sucking up crystal meth with a rolled-up five spot, a lighter and a crinkled length of tin foil.”
About the book: This thrilling heist novel is full of nonstop action and includes incredible detail on everything from casino operations to armored cars—as well as an unforgettable, amoral antihero.
About the author: Just 24 years old, Hobbs finished the novel while still attending Reed College in Portland.
Read more: Interview from our February issue.
THE SUPREMES AT EARL'S ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT
By Edward Kelsey Moore
For fans of: Maeve Binchy, Terry McMillan, Fannie Flagg
First line: “I woke up hot that morning. Came out of a sound sleep with my face tingling and my nightgown stuck to my body.”
About the book: The 40-year friendship of three women from the small town of Plainview, Indiana, is celebrated in a big-hearted story that’s full of laughs—and inspired by the “smart, and interesting, and not foolish” women in Moore’s own life.
About the author: Moore was an accomplished cellist and college professor when he decided to try writing at the age of 40 (he’s now 52).
Read more: Interview from our March issue.
A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA
By Anthony Marra
For fans of: Téa Obreht, Adam Johnson, Jonathan Safran Foer
First line: “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.”
About the book: Set against the backdrop of the Chechen Wars, an exhausted doctor fights to protect a young girl whose father has been taken away by Russian soldiers for a crime he didn’t commit.
About the author: Currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Marra holds an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and has lived in Eastern Europe.
Read more: Review from our May issue.
THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI
By Helene Wecker
For fans of: Susanna Clarke, Deborah Harkness, Michael Chabon
First line: “The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship.”
About the book: A golem, a jinni and the evil wizard that links them star in Wecker’s imaginative blend of Jewish and Arabic folklore. The supernatural characters are grounded by the novel’s detailed, vibrant setting in 1899 New York City, where immigrants and wealthy citizens mingle on teeming streets.
About the author: Wecker spent seven years working in the corporate sector before attending Columbia University’s writing program.
Read more: Interview from our May issue.
THE OTHER TYPIST
By Suzanne Rindell
For fans of: Amor Towles, ZoÃ« Heller, M.L. Stedman
First line: “They said the typewriter would unsex us.”
About the book: Rose, a prim and proper typist working in 1920s Manhattan, forms a friendship with mysterious, fun-loving Odalie that borders on obsession. With Rose as its sly and slightly unreliable narrator, this suspenseful story will keep you guessing.
About the author: A former employee of a literary agency, Rindell is finishing up a Ph.D. in modernist literature at Rice University.
Read more: Review from our May issue.
THE EXECUTION OF NOA P. SINGLETON
By Elizabeth L. Silver
For fans of: Lionel Shriver, Gillian Flynn, John Grisham
First line: “In this world, you are either good or evil.”
About the book: We know from page one that Noa is guilty of murder. Silver’s psychologically acute narrative probes the all-important question of why—and provides a breathtaking answer.
About the author: Silver earned her legal knowledge as a judicial clerk and research attorney for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. She also has an M.A. in literature.
Read more: Review from our June issue.
THE GHOST BRIDE
By Yangsze Choo
For fans of: Lisa See, Eowyn Ivey, Jamie Ford, Erin Morgenstern
First line: “One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride.”
About the book: In 1893 Malaysia, Li Lan finds herself betrothed to a ghost—and in love with another man. Her quest for freedom takes her through the land of the dead.
About the author: Choo got a degree in sociology from Harvard before launching her writing career.
Read more: Interview in this issue.
By Kevin Maher
For fans of: Roddy Doyle, Jennifer Haigh, Nick Hornby
First line: “When Jack died I was real young, younger than I am now, and I said, in a temper, that I would never let it happen again.”
About the book: This ambitious coming-of-age story set in 1980s Dublin is told in the memorable voice of Jim Finnegan, the youngest of six in a working-class family.
About the author: From Dublin himself, Maher now lives in England and is a film critic for several papers, including the Guardian.
Read more: Review in this issue.
THE PEOPLE IN THE TREES
By Hanya Yanagihara
For fans of: Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver
First line: “I was born in 1924 near Lindon, Indiana, the sort of small, unremarkable rural town that some twenty years before my birth had begun to duplicate itself, quietly but insistently, across the Midwest.”
About the book: Told through the annotated journals of Dr. Norton Perina, this sprawling tale has an old-fashioned feel. Perina has discovered the key to longevity on a remote island—but at what price?
About the author: Yanagihara is an editor for Condé Nast Travel—which explains Perina’s fantastic descriptions of island paradise.
Read more: Review in this issue.
Hobbs's strong debut bypasses a potentially over-familiar premise, a lone-wolf crook trying to outwit the underworld's higher powers through sheer verve. Five years after a failed heist in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the protagonist, identified only by the alias "Jack Delton," is leading an anonymous existence, but not enough of one to prevent his former boss, the Moriarty-like Marcus Hayes, from summoning him at a moment's notice. Marcus's latest heist, of an armored car delivering .2 million to an Atlantic City casino, has gone badly, bloodily wrong, with one henchman dead and the other in hiding with the loot. Jack must find the survivor in the next 48 hours before an ink bomb hidden in the cash goes off, while also dealing with FBI agent Rebecca Blacker and local kingpin Harrihar "the Wolf" Turner. Though occasionally overloaded with information about criminal procedure, Hobbs's supremely confident storytelling should leave readers eagerly anticipating his antihero's future felonies. 150,000 first printing; 5-city author tour. Agent: Nat Sobel, Sobel Weber. (Feb.)[Page ]. Copyright 2012 PWxyz LLC