A young crime writer's riveting debut
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 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.