”All tough guys are monotonous. Like playing cards with a deck that’s all aces.” So said Philip Marlowe, a tough guy if ever there was one, but also an often despondent, unforgivingly self-aware PI who caught nearly as many punches as he threw. The protagonist of Roger Hobbs’ tense and tightly coiled debut thriller, Ghostman, on the other hand, is too good for his own good. While he may talk like Marlowe, he’s more in the Jack Reacher mold: a near superhero with Kevlar confidence who dispenses tradecraft and expertise as if he were training the reader as his replacement. A ”ghostman,” he’s also a master of disguise and can slip in and out of identities as easily as a set of clothes. (He doesn’t even have a real name anymore.) He can memorize a city’s layout at a single glance, enumerate the best ways to torch a getaway car or case a bank vault, and take on multiple gun-wielding thugs in hand-to-hand combat. And, like Reacher, he has just stringent enough a moral code to prevent him from coming off as a heartless Terminator.
Hobbs’ plotting is snare-drum tight — the nameless hero is tasked with locating the federally marked loot of an Atlantic City robbery gone horribly awry — and the story is layered with double crosses and wound up with an effective but eventually tiresome ticking-clock motif that gives a countdown at the end of every chapter. It’s the metronome for Hobbs’ impressive orchestration, but unfortunately there’s only so much music you can make with one note. B