Sometimes, a good setting can make a good book great, or a not-so-good book just plain fun. I just finished Ghostman by Roger Hobbs, a thriller set in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Atlantic City is within a couple of hours driving distance from where I live, and trips to the Jersey shore have long been a part of my life. Escape weekends with girlfriends, road tripping in college, and family vacations are all part of my history with this location.
Atlantic City’s dark side is in full view in Ghostman, a hard boiled, procedural tale of a robbery gone wrong. Hobbs flips the usual procedural tale here, and tells the story from the viewpoint of a bad guy, a “ghostman” – which is apparently, in heist terminology, is the guy whose role it is fix things, quietly, off the grid.
This is a dark, bloody book. Hobbs creates a terrifically vivid sense of the underside of Atlantic City, complete with abandoned strip clubs, falling down houses, and cheap motels. Hobbs’ imagery is particularly good when it comes to odors – his protagonist uses his sense of smell to describe just about every location he visits. The strong odors of naphtha, blood, and damp permeate this book.
Hobbs has a tendency to list things, which can get a bit dry. The protagonist, Jack – whose real name we never really discover – details the contents of his bag, car, and requests lists of items from his local AC procurer. Jack lists, rather than describes, his method of changing his appearance. There’s also a bit of the cyber punk style here with all the name dropping of gun types, ammunition, drugs, and designer clothing.
The plot is quick paced, and very exciting. And as bad as our protagonist Jack is, there’s always someone more evil than he is. Hobbs alternates the present day plot in Atlantic City with a flashback of another heist gone wrong. This secondary plot is also quick paced and exciting.
This book was released last year, and is Hobbs’ debut novel. There’s an interview with Hobbs that I found interesting, mainly for his description of his writerly life – ramen noodles and staking out a power outlet in the library for his laptop.
For me, the main appeal of this fun novel was the setting. Somehow, reading about characters that are walking down the same streets you have walked down, and visiting the same places you’ve visited, creates a full sense of immediacy. And Hobbs’ descriptions of the approach to and the outskirts of Atlantic City capture the dichotomy of this place. The wealth and flash of the casinos and boardwalk contrast in a disturbing way with the tired looking neighborhoods just outside.
I’m not sure how accurate Hobbs’ geography is, but I picture him at that library with maps and googling street views of Atlantic City.
If you don’t mind violence and gore combined with drug use and cruelty, Ghostman is an entertaining book with a strong and compelling setting.